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The Art of Healing: Bradford Ladd's Story

Bradford Ladd documented — and accelerated — his recovery from a stroke, thanks to his pencils and a sketch pad.

A father and a 319-year-old hometown tradition. That’s who, and what, Bradford Ladd credits for his second career of sorts as a painter. For 38 years, Bradford’s father, Edward, designed floats for Mardi Gras parades in the family's hometown of Mobile, Alabama. When Edward was ready to hand over the creative reins, he asked his sons if either of them would be interested in taking over

“I said, ‘I think I would,’” Bradford recalls. “I’d always drawn but designing the Mardi Gras floats really got me into painting. My dad had turned it into an art form, and I followed his lead. I’d sketch out the floats and then paint them."

The bold designs and vibrant colors of Mardi Gras captivated Bradford. Before long, he had branched out to subjects of his own choosing: wildlife, Mobile Bay waterways, and much more. He converted a room in the back of his house into a studio and began painting almost every day. A commercial real estate broker by trade, painting became Bradford’s release valve.

“What it does is give me some meditation, so to speak,” Bradford says. “When you’re drawing or painting, you unzip a bubble, step inside, and zip it up after you. You forget everything in your own little world. It’s been good for me."

On July 20, 2018, Bradford’s bubble burst.

He had taken his daughter Campbell, then 16, up to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a regional swim competition. As ever, Bradford had his sketchbook in tow. While sketching one afternoon during the trip, he experienced a stroke. He spent 10 days in Knoxville at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, then a month at Shepherd Center with a team of specialists “putting Humpty Dumpty together again,” as Bradford describes it.

The stroke didn’t impair his speech, but it did impact his memory and severely affect the right side of his body — a concerning consequence for a right-handed painter. Physical and occupational therapists at Shepherd Center’s Stroke Rehabilitation Program focused on re-training his body to achieve certain movements that would help him paint once again.

Early on, Bradford’s dad asked if there was anything he needed with him. Bradford requested a sketch pad and pencils. That sketchbook now serves as a historical document, illustrating Bradford’sprogress as he recovered from his stroke.

On August 5, Bradford scratched out a house, left-handed. It was a far cry from his true artistic abilities, but it gave him a sense of possibility. A few days later, Bradford tried drawing with his right hand for the first time. He attempted a pair of faces “that looked like a three-year-old did them,” Bradford says. But, again, the exercise motivated him, steeling his resolve.

He poured himself into his therapy, including water-color art classes through Shepherd Center’s recreational therapy programs. He did yoga there, too.

“I did everything I possibly could to push myself ahead,” Bradford says. “Shepherd Center is great at getting you to keep pushing your limits."

All along, Bradford kept filling up his sketchbook. Flip the pages, and the drawings get sharper, more detailed by the day. By the end of his stay at Shepherd Center, Bradford’s lines had shed their shakiness, and his characters had once again become recognizable. By December, Bradford painted his first post-injury drawing, adding shades of red, blue, brown, and yellow to a turkey.

“It’s funny, I think my drawings and paintings are better now,” he says. “Before, I always had to have my lines be perfect. Now, my imperfections give it more of an artistic flair."

Bradford’s once again designing Mobile’s famed floats. And last summer, he completed a series of stylized paintings of fish that are now for sale at the McCoy Outdoor Company in Mobile.

“I’m never gonna get rich off this, but maybe it’ll pay for my paints,” Bradford says with a laugh.

Written by Phillip Jordan

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.