Battle with epilepsy doesn’t hinder alumna’s political career
Cindy Acree is a good teacher for many life lessons: overcoming adversity, the importance of hard work, helping those who read more…
Cindy Acree is a good teacher for many life lessons: overcoming adversity, the importance of hard work, helping those who can’t always help themselves.
Acree (MSJA ’88) was a longtime sufferer of temporal-lobe epilepsy, which for years caused her occasional seizures and frequent “absent states.” Because of the affliction, she also could hold forth on what to do when others’ negative opinions are directed at you: shake it off and move on.
“People would assume I was mentally defective,” she says. “I’d hear them talking about me behind my back, saying that I wasn’t all there. Epilepsy is a devastating neurological condition that few understand and many are afraid of. You just learn to deal with it, to work that much harder.”
Acree’s hard work has paid off. In 2008, she was elected to the Colorado Legislature as a Republican representing western Aurora and most of rural Arapahoe County. Her story is one of perseverance, and it’s one that has greatly influenced her political efforts.
During her childhood in Bentonville, Ark., Acree was not afflicted with the medical condition that would envelop so much of her adult life. She raised livestock and grew fruit on her family farm. She recalls her high school years fondly.
“Living in the country, you establish a great work ethic,” she says. “You compare that to the high school experience of today, in the city. There’s access to everything. It doesn’t really create an environment where kids have to be creative to entertain themselves or have to work to get what they want.”
Acree attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she met her future husband, Robert. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. She also has an associate’s degree from Cottey College in Missouri, where she studied theater. She has dabbled in community theater and has logged some time in traveling shows. Her stint as an actress prepared her well for politics, she says.
Eventually, though, she followed her husband, who worked in the oil and gas industry, to Colorado. It was at DU law school that she earned a master’s degree in judicial administration and later, from 1988–91, taught classes in technology and legal enterprise.
By this point, however, Acree had long been living with her condition. The seizures first appeared when she was an undergraduate, and she quickly had to adjust to her limitations. She couldn’t drive, since the seizures came with little to no warning. During her time at DU and in her first jobs for law firms, after she graduated, she took cabs and buses.
Determined to secure employment on her own merits and avoid the social stigma attached to epilepsy, Acree never shared information unless she was asked.
“I’d never tell them until I was hired,” she says. “On my first day I’d convene a staff meeting, tell them I had seizures and here’s what to do: Don’t put anything in my mouth. If I’m unconscious more than two minutes, call an ambulance.”
The limitations in her life were many. Often she had trouble concentrating, and during phone calls she would take notes in case she suffered an absent state and couldn’t remember what was said earlier in the conversation. She couldn’t have children, and sometimes even crossing the street was fraught with anxiety.
In 1991, in hopes of ending the epilepsy, she underwent what at the time was considered an experimental surgery to remove her right temporal lobe. A blood clot on the table resulted in a stroke that left her paralyzed on the left side of her body. She had to learn to walk again and became right-handed instead of left-handed.
It was another blow, but in a way it was a reasonable tradeoff. Free of epilepsy, Acree began driving again for the first time in 16 years and even went to the grocery store herself — something she had never done. She became a distance bicyclist, finishing the grueling Ride the Rockies. Most importantly, though, Acree had children — a daughter, and later, twin boys. It was at the insistence of her daughter that Acree got on the bike. She rode 437 miles across the Colorado mountains without being able to stand up and pedal or get on and off the bike by herself.
“Growing up, my mother always told me that if you think you can, you can,” says Acree’s daughter, Hope, who studies chemistry at Colorado Mesa University (formerly Mesa State) in Grand Junction. “When I was learning to ride a bike, my mother couldn’t ride a bike. I told her that I’d learn, but that she’d have to learn, too. She’d fall off at first, but she’d always get back up.”
Cindy Acree has been around politics most of her life. In 1968, she worked on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. More recently, she served as the campaign manager for her predecessor. With several political appointments to her credit, she has served her community as chair of the Aurora City Citizens Advisory Budget Committee, the Cherry Creek School District Facility Long Range Planning Committee and the Colorado Stroke Advisory Council.
“The timing just seemed right,” she said of her run for the Legislature. “It was a great way to continue the work I was doing with health care and these medical issues. I think our public policy needs to be made by people who have experience with these things.”
She went on to chair the board of the Colorado Neurological Institute (CNI), the largest neuroscience center in the Rocky Mountain Region. It was the first neurological institute in the world to be chaired by a former patient. She served on the board of Spalding Hospital, where she did her rehabilitation. CNI designated the Cindy Acree Hope Award in 2002 to recognize patients who overcome adversity and inspire hope in others.
Since then, she helped established one of the nation’s largest telemedicine programs in Colorado. Launched in 2006 by the Colorado Neurological Institute, Colorado-Digital-Online-Consultant allows stroke patients in remote areas of the state to be treated immediately, rather than flying to a metro-area hospital when time is a crucial factor. She is constantly advocating for people with disabilities.
As vice chair of the health committee, she has passed legislation that reforms Medicaid, makes medical services more accessible to seniors and children and brings down costs of delivering care. In upcoming sessions, she hopes to prompt legislation that would require insurance companies to recognize driving retraining as an integral part of rehabilitation so they will cover the expense like they do other rehab expenses.
She credits DU for much of her success and follows a stringent code when considering legislation.
“I made a rule when I came into office that I would look at every law based on the Constitution, my values and my constituents,” she says. “If there’s ever a conflict, my constituents win. I don’t care if I believe in my heart that something is the right thing to do, if enough people contact me and say, ‘We don’t want you to vote for this,’ I will vote my district.”