HawkStrong: Jim Piché overcomes Guillain-Barré, resumes acting at HFC
HFC alumnus and former employee Jim Piché made his triumphant return to the stage as Captain Ahab in The Passage, HFC’s critically lauded production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
“Honestly, it was amazing,” said Piché, husband of HFC Academic Affairs Project Manager Denise Modrzynski-Piché. He recently started a new job as the wood shop teacher at Dearborn High School after being off work for 2½ years due to illness.
He spoke about why he got into acting.
“As Jim, I could never do or say the things a character in a play or movie can do or say. It's an escape from ordinary me into an extraordinary someone else. Plus, as an actor, you get to feel all sorts of emotions and let out parts of yourself you keep locked up – it’s cathartic.”
And playing Ahab – the embittered captain who lost his leg during an encounter with the great white whale called Moby Dick – has indeed been cathartic for Piché. Since late 2019, he has been battling Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disease where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, the protective coating around the nerves. This causes the nerves to “short out,” which causes paralysis and other debilitating symptoms. It can range from mild to severe. Piché had a very severe case.
“Ahab was me in a different light,” explained Piché. “We are two sides of the same coin. We both had this terrible thing happen to us that left us physically altered. While I stayed positive, Ahab went negative. Ahab was my darkest thoughts and feelings, and being able to dig into that was cathartic.”
Diagnosed with GBS in the early days of the pandemic
Piché’s health troubles began after Christmas 2019. On Jan. 8, 2020, he was rushed to the ER at Beaumont Hospital because he had lost his ability to stand. He was diagnosed with GBS. By the end of the day, he was on a ventilator.
From there, he was transferred to the ICU and had a feeding tube inserted. When it became apparent that he was going to be on a ventilator for a long time, he had a tracheostomy, a procedure in which a tube was inserted into his trachea to help him breathe. He endured numerous shots, tests, and blood cleanings. He was completely paralyzed except for movement in his eyes and one eyebrow. He fell into a coma for nine days.
“Nothing in life can prepare you for being 100 percent paralyzed and trapped in your own body,” said Piché. “The first few days were like a fever dream. The nine days I was in a coma, I could still hear things around me, but it was like waking and sleeping dreams bled into real life.”
This health crisis occurred during the early days of the pandemic, which only made things worse.
“My family was always by my side. My desire to get back to Denise and the girls pushed me a lot,” recalled Piché. “Then COVID shut everything down and my support system was further away. I tried my best to stay hopeful and positive, but the longer the pandemic went on and the longer I didn't improve, I started to lose hope.”
Added Modrynski-Piché: “When COVID hit, we could no longer be with him every day. That was incredibly hard and frustrating.”
From March to August 2020, Piché wasn’t able to see his family. Even when he finally saw them after five months, it was through a window. Still, being able to see them raised his spirits.
“That was a huge gift for me and my family,” he said.
In September 2020, weekly outdoor visits were allowed for 30 minutes (if the temperature was 55 degrees or higher). Piché was allowed two visitors.
On Oct. 15, 2020, he was taken off the ventilator.
A single word
From late November 2020 to early July 2021, Piché stayed with a relative until he was healthy enough to return home. Members of his family took turns caring for him while he underwent physical and occupational therapy and weekly home care visits. He could talk but couldn’t feed himself or hold or lift anything.
Eventually he regained those motor skills. Once he returned home to Dearborn in early July 2021, he was walking but not without a walker. He could not climb the stairs.
“I honestly never doubted I would get better. Even when the doctors and respiratory therapists were concerned I would probably never fully recover, I believed I would. Doctors can not know what a person is capable of. All they can do is guess.”
What put Piché on a solid road to recovery was when Modrynski-Piché told him to use the word “yet.”
“I was still in the nursing home and wasn’t really improving like everyone thought I should,” he recalled. “Physical and occupational therapy had been discontinued because I didn’t show enough improvement. I was at a real low. It was during one of our video chats via Facebook that Denise came up with the word ‘yet.’ She told me to stop thinking in terms of ‘I can’t’ and in terms of ‘I can’t YET, but I will.’ Any time I came across something I couldn't do, I had to always say ‘yet’ at the end of that sentence. I can't move my arm ‘yet.’ I can't get off the vent 'yet.’ I can't sit up ‘yet.’ This single word changed everything.”
The real work
Soon after being taken off the ventilator, Piché was able to leave the nursing home and move into a house that had been converted by his family to a therapy house. At that point, the real work began.
Piché did eight months of home physical and occupational therapy, followed by three months of pool and hand therapy, then four months of outpatient physical and occupational therapy.
“Now, just living my life is therapy,” he said.
Two years ago, Piché could only move his eyes and one eyebrow. Now he’s up and about. He credits accomplishing such a herculean task to his desire to be with his wife and live his best life ever.
“I have to wear ankle foot orthosis (AFO) braces on my legs to walk, and my hands don't work exactly right. But considering I should not be able to do anything, according to the doctors, I'm doing fantastic!” said Piché. “The key is to always remain positive. Don't dwell on the negative. Focus on the small victories. Don't let anyone tell you what your timetable should be. If you have the will, you can do anything.”
Serving overseas in the Army
A native of Harmony, MN, Piché is the eldest of three sons. He graduated from Edsel Ford High School and attended HFC (then Henry Ford Community College), where he studied theater. He later attended Oakland University before enlisting in the U.S. Army.
“I wanted to do something with my life that meant something. I was 30 and floating in the wind with no real direction,” he recalled. “I had just been forced out of my position with Lowe’s and was looking for what was next. I saw an ad for the Army before a movie and it just clicked. So I called up a recruiter my brother knew and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) Enlistment Testing Program.”
Piché served in the Army from 2007-13. His primary military specialty was combat medic, and he saw action in Afghanistan. His final rank was specialist before earning an honorable discharge after six years of service.
Making characters his own
For nearly 30 years, Piché has been involved with the theater community, either onstage or behind the scenes. It began during his high school days when a friend dragged him to audition for the play Up the Down Staircase, based on Bel Kaufman’s novel of the same name. Piché got the role of Dr. Bester and was hooked. He did three more plays while in high school and even formed a small theater company with some friends where they sang Disney songs.
His first play at HFC was as Salieri’s valet in Amadeus. Afterward, he appeared in every HFC production for the next several years. In 2001, he appeared in the Dearborn Youth Theatre’s production of Peter Pan as a favor to the late Dale Van Dorp, alias “the Voice of Dearborn,” who taught at HFC. Piché was Mr. Smee to Van Dorp’s Captain Hook.
“I love all the characters I play because I make them my own. I have had a lot of fun playing different characters. I'm a character actor, so I have played a lot of very interesting characters. Claudius in Hamlet and Ahab in The Passage are probably the ones I'm most proud of,” said Piché.
When the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center opened in 2000, Piché became the head lighting designer and master electrician for the Michael A. Guido Theater. He was onstage at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield, and was involved in several independent theatre troupes. He returned to HFC to assist with various productions before joining the military.
For 10 years, Piché was absent from the stage. In 2017, the late Gerry Dzublinski, who taught theatre at HFC and was Piché’s teacher and mentor, asked him to be in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank as a guest artist at Concordia University in Ann Arbor. Afterward, Piché became his technical director until Dzublinski’s death in 2019.
“There’s something magical about live theater”
Piché didn’t plan on performing in The Passage. All he wanted to do was concentrate on his new job and his continued recovery. But HFC theatre instructor Christopher Bremer reached out to him. Bremer, who had worked with Piché many times, mentioned him to the new HFC Director of Theatre Dr. John Michael Sefel.
“I was unsure if I could or should do it,” recalled Piché. “I didn't want to take a part away from a student, but then I remembered the heyday of theatre at HFC when I was a student. The directors would always bring in guest artists to give the students someone to look up to. I decided I would at least consider it, so I asked Chris to send me the script. I read the script and told him I wanted to do it.”
“I hadn't even really thought about it until Chris asked me,” he confessed. “Denise was the one who told me I had to do it – just to prove I could. There is something magical about live theater,” he said. “It's an energy that is shared between the audience and performers that you can't get through any other medium. It's a bond that transcends time and space where a group of people ask another group of people to believe in the story that is being told and to suspend disbelief. They allow themselves to be transported to another time and place for a little while. The audience gives the performers life while the performers give the story life.”
Sefel enjoyed working with Piché and admired his drive.
"Being so new to the program myself, I felt it was important that people saw some familiar faces,” he said. “I wanted to establish that, while some new things were on the way, the HFC theatre that people knew and loved hadn't disappeared. Jim perfectly captured this. He's been involved with the program since the 1990s and worked with generations of students and teachers, yet he is constantly forward-looking and eager to try new things.”
Sefel continued: “Jim provided a wonderful balance between fellow actor and mentor to our younger students while remaining a favorite with the audience. Jim's passion for the work and can-do attitude in the face of all he’s gone through was a vital part of the process, both for the creation of Captain Ahab and as a model for many of our first-time actors to follow. He was, in many ways, a captain both onstage and off."