Deston Denniston, a 51-year-old Centralia resident, had been approved to leave the emergency room on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, after experiencing strange symptoms.
The next day, he was cleared by his primary care doctor during a followup appointment.
But that Friday, Denniston found himself slurring his words and unable to stand upright. He was having a stroke. Now, almost a year later, Denniston is planning on marking the anniversary of his stroke by hiking up Seminary Hill.
Denniston grew up in Centralia. He said he first became interested in Seminary Hill while attending Washington Elementary School. As a child, he would go to Seminary Hill and play “king of the hill” with his friends.
“We would go up on the hill and it was so steep that we’d be almost climbing up it and we’d end up covered in dirt by the end of the day. We sprayed ourselves off with a hose to get clean,” Denniston recalled.
After graduating from Centralia High School, he joined the Army, where he served as an artilleryman.
Upon leaving the military, Denniston attended Centralia College and Evergreen State College before receiving a master’s degree in agricultural sciences from Washington State University.
Once he earned his master’s degree, Denniston said he went to work in the field of ecology where he said he’s been working for most of his adult life. Since he began work in ecology, Denniston has focused on the areas of slope stabilization, erosion control, edible forest gardening and prairie restoration. He even has his own business, though he says it’s been dormant since his stroke.
Denniston has also sought to help his fellow veterans by increasing their connection with nature. He founded a 120-acre “veterans farm” in Rochester, which he said provides a chance to help veterans interested in training related to farming and ecology. The farm is now operated by the Veterans’ Ecological Trades Collective.
The veterans farm is “a place where veterans can go and explore their connections to soil, ecology and nature in fellowship with other veterans,” Denniston added.
He started the farm after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I saw a lot of kids coming home completely broken,” Denniston said, “I saw that there was a growing movement of veterans looking for land and agricultural skills and I wanted to help however I could because of my background in agriculture.”
But last June, his work was put on hold. Just as the heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest was beginning, he found himself in a hospital bed. After being rushed to Providence, the doctors soon sent him north to a hospital in Tacoma.
“I got to visit him in the hospital during the heat wave, so it at least gave me the opportunity to be in the air conditioning,” said Denniston’s partner Meta Hogan, 43, finding a silver lining to the ordeal.
Hogan, whom Denniston calls his “sweetie,” said she had been out when Denniston began having his stroke but received a call from him in which he was slurring his speech. She rushed home to find Denniston laying on their couch and called 911.
After receiving care in Tacoma, Denniston was released to a care facility in Tumwater. Hogan said because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in place at the time, she was not allowed to be inside the facility. Due to Denniston’s bed having been oriented away from the window, she had to yell through the window while he shouted back.
But Denniston didn’t want to be in the care facility where he was only getting an hour of therapy a day, far fewer than the three to four hours of therapy a day his doctors had recommended while in the hospital. He’s had difficulty getting the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA) to approve his treatments. Compounding his issues, since the VA center in Lewis County closed, he has to travel to Olympia regularly for a five-minute blood draw. Because of the difficulties he faced with the VA, Denniston says he’s felt like he hasn’t been in command of his treatment.
“Going on this walk, for me, is a way to be in control of my own recovery,” Denniston said. “It’s also a way to bring awareness of Seminary Hill as a gem of the local community.”
The walk isn’t only to mark the anniversary of his stroke, though. It’s also the anniversary of when he quit smoking.
“I had been trying to quit smoking for three years. But it ended up trying to quit me,” Denniston said, reflecting on how he’s changed his lifestyle since his stroke.
According to Denniston, he and Hogan used to walk up Seminary Hill often prior to his stroke. Now, he wants to walk back up the hill he has so many fond childhood memories of.
“Shoutout to Friends of Seminary Hill and their volunteer work … so that the trails are safe and navigable,” Denniston said.
Denniston has been building back his walking abilities. He began walking every day beginning in October 2021 when he would walk half a block. Now, he walks at least two blocks a day. Denniston said he walks about a mile a week now, compared to the 2 to 5 miles he walked almost every day before he was hospitalized.
While his recovery has been challenging, Denniston says he’s grateful just to be alive.
“Statistically, most people who have the type of hemorrhage I did don’t survive,” Denniston said. “It’s a surprise, a privilege, a pleasure and a great responsibility to be alive.”
Denniston plans on walking up Seminary Hill on June 25, the one-year anniversary of his stroke.