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Training her brain
After a massive stroke in her 30s, she learns how to live life over again

Photos by Dan Bishop

July 2013

Gina Gruenewald says she has always been a hard worker. Her first real job was as an entrepreneur, starting her own cleaning business in Racine. After a few years, she moved to Milwaukee to take another job for a company that introduced her to the restaurant business. When Roots restaurant opened in Riverwest in 2004, she became the firm’s bookkeeper.

Her life was barreling along until August 2009. Gruenewald, who had been adopted along with her three sisters as a child, learned about a baby girl who needed a mother. Because of the circumstances surrounding the baby’s birth, and the agreement of the birth mother, she was able to adopt the baby quickly. When her boyfriend suggested they get married so he could be the little girl’s father, she couldn’t have been more excited.

Three weeks later, while at work, Gruenewald began to experience a pounding headache and severe nausea. She managed to get back home, take a nap and make dinner.

"I remember that I started complaining about how bright the room was and how loud the TV was," she recalls.

She and her boyfriend, a paramedic, thought it was just a bad headache — until she couldn’t feel the entire right side of her body. At the age of 34, and with a new baby to care for, Gruenewald was having a massive stroke. Eighty percent of her brain was involved.

She doesn’t remember much about the next two to three months, but when she began to recover, she started looking for answers.

"I never smoked, never did drugs," she says. "I thought, ‘I’m so young, this is so stupid.’ I got very determined. I thought, ‘What am I supposed to learn from this?’"

She learned how to bring herself back from the brink, refusing traditional rehabilitative services. She says she just felt that the brain is a muscle, and she could figure out how to retrain it and make it strong again.

"I had to learn how to read again and I had to learn how to think again," she says.

Gruenewald made her own flashcards and did her own brain exercises. Step by step, she began to heal.

She lost most of the vision in her right eye and still has some numbness in her extremities, she says. She can sometimes struggle with short-term memory: "I retrained my brain to say, ‘Remember this.’ I keep saying to myself, ‘Be here now.’"

She began to exercise regularly and, as a result, lost some weight. She continued to exercise her brain. And she resolved to eat better.

"I knew if I took care of those three things, the rest would follow," she says.

That was four years ago. Gruenewald says the stroke may have been one of the "greatest things that ever happened to me, because it woke me up."

Today, Gruenewald insists that improving the quality of the food she eats is what helps keep her healthy.

"That’s why I’m obsessed with the food here," she explains. "Here" is the Wolf Peach restaurant, in the former Roots building at 1818 N. Hubbard St., Milwaukee.

When Roots closed in September 2012, Gruenewald, who had been Roots’ bookkeeper until the last day, scrambled to reopen the doors with help from developer Tim Dixon.

"Roots closing was heartbreaking for me. It was heartbreaking for everybody here," she says.

As she and Dixon discussed the options, they realized she could be the restaurant’s new owner. A loan from the Small Business Administration helped her launch the new venture.

"We did it in six weeks. We had to. I didn’t want to lose my crew," she says.

Roots was one of the original "farm to table" restaurants, before "local," "seasonal" and "sustainable" became a national dining movement. Gruenewald’s Wolf Peach, which features rustic European cuisine, continues to use ingredients that meet those criteria.

"Roots did it well; we do it even better," she says. "We have a six-acre farm on Tim Dixon’s land in Sheboygan County, and my sister, Natalya, is the farmer." This summer, she expects to have 15 varieties of fresh tomatoes on the menu.

Dishes are served in the "Como Viene" style, which means they are brought to the table just as soon as they are ready to eat.

"It means you get the food as it comes," Gruenewald says. "What I love about that is it’s the exact same way I look at life — as it’s ready. There’s a sense of sharing, a sense of ‘keep it coming.’"


This story ran in the July 2013 issue of: