Being raised by a single parent, I occasionally tagged along with my mother to her training classes when she was a registered nurse. I remember how she taught a CPR course to her fellow nurses, demonstrating compressions on a mannequin. That left a lasting impression on me about heart health and what people are doing about it. When I heard that one of my favorite actors, Jason Gray-Stanford, currently advocates for heart health, I called him on Zoom to discuss his career and his heart transplant experience.
Looking Back to Voice Acting Days
Gray-Stanford is perhaps best known for his role as Lieutenant Randy Disher in the hit television series, Monk. His guest appearances include Legends of Tomorrow, The Boys, iZombie, and Bones. However, I first encountered his work through Saturday morning cartoons when he was still a voice actor in the 1990s. He lent his superb voice talents to Joe Higashi in Fatal Fury, Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, Kento in Ronin Warriors, Raditz in the first English dub of Dragon Ball Z, and other memorable characters.
“I remember those days very fondly and I had such a great time doing that. I’m surprised that so many people love the anime stuff. It still holds up,” he said.
“What’s great I find about voice acting is [that] you’re always in the moment. A lot of times when you lay things down, you’ll do them in triplets, even with something as simple as saying hello. They might use one of those three. You have to be on your toes and you never know what someone else might deliver.”
His experiences as a voice actor are still relevant to his in-person acting in film and television. “The best thing that I took from voice acting that I try to apply to everything else is it is so much fun.”
On the Popularity of ‘Monk’
Even though Monk ended in 2009 on USA Network, the show about everyone’s favorite obsessive-compulsive detective (Tony Shalhoub) continues to generate interest and conversations among fans old and new. It’s available for streaming on Peacock. To look back at the run and celebrate Monk fans, Gray-Stanford launched The Randy Disher Podcast last year with executive producer Lara Arocho.
He is very proud of these encounters with Monk fans and interviews with Ted Levine (Leland Stottlemeyer), Traylor Howard (Natalie Teeger), and even series creator Andy Breckman. “Hopefully, we come back and do more podcasts. We’ll see what happens. I can’t say too much about it, but the Monk fans might be in for some interesting news.”
On Speaking “from the Heart”
Gray-Stanford became a dedicated heart health advocate after his harrowing experience with heart failure. Troubling symptoms creeped in around 2017 during his late 40s, surprising him because he led an active lifestyle. Since his heart couldn’t pump enough blood through his body and a healthy rhythm couldn’t be maintained, he ultimately needed a pacemaker in 2019 and a heart transplant in 2020.
I asked him what training you needed to be a health advocate. “All the training I had was going through what I went through. No pun intended, you speak from the heart,” he replied.
While the core piece is his personal story, the 52-year-old still looks for opportunities to provide context to his audiences. He gave me an example of a key point: “The American Heart Association funded and researched the first battery-operated and wearable pacemaker. It was because of them that those advances have gone forward.”
From July 29 to August 3, Gray-Stanford will be busy in San Diego, California, with the 2022 Transplant Games. Not only is he participating in the 5K Walk/Run, but he’ll also be serving as ambassador at the Games.
On Recovering from a Heart Transplant
I went in search of some post-transplant statistics regarding physical recovery. A patient needs time to get through organ rejection symptoms as well as heal their incision and broken bones. Temple Health‘s FAQ states that full recovery from a heart transplant can take three months. According to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, getting back to work takes around six months.
Gray-Stanford emphasized that recovering is complicated. It can vary from person to person, depending on the end goals. “I wanted to get back to exactly how I was before and to be as physically fit as I was. I didn’t want to have any limitations from my heart transplant, so it certainly took longer. Once I started to feel better, the real work began.”
Along the way, he felt like it was “one step forward, two steps backward.” There was also a mental recovery that spanned far beyond the six months of physical recovery.
“I had to take a lot of time off from acting. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to do it again.”
You are Not Alone
It’s important to ask questions of your doctors and to “be your best advocate” when you navigate medical appointments, especially during a difficult diagnosis. Gray-Stanford cautioned, “Don’t dwell too much on the internet, where you think you can figure everything out.”
In these critical times, reach out to family and friends for support. “Remember that it’s okay to accept help and to ask for help. Oftentimes, we feel like we are alone and no one understands what we’re going through.”
Lastly, Gray-Stanford believes in the power of positivity. “My family uses humor. Bad jokes are great! The wonderful nurses and staff [also] passed onto me that the people they see who have positive attitudes seem to recover quicker, have less complications, and live longer, happier lives.”
Ways to Build a Healthier Lifestyle
Thinking back to K-12 school, I wondered whether we need to do more about early health education so that we can tackle our health issues in adulthood. Gray-Stanford replied, “Even though they feel like a general overview, those are things that almost everybody can do to start. I always say to start small. Some people don’t come out of the gate right away with a great diet and education about health.”
Start with the building blocks of a healthier diet, maintaining a good weight, and exercise. Rather than trying to lift weights or run a marathon immediately, he recommends the baby step of taking a walk in your neighborhood. After that, add more complex activities and address any health concerns as they emerge. “One of the bigger things is to make sure that you go to the doctor. If something doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor.”
According to Gray-Stanford, watching your stress is another way to go to the next level and stay healthy. “One thing that I realized and still struggle with today is stress. Try and manage stress. We all get stressed, especially in the world we live in today. With the pandemic, we’ve all been mentally and emotionally taxed. Stress has such negative effects.”
What Can I Do in the Community?
One impactful way to help people with organ failure is to register as an organ donor. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the national transplant waiting list has 106,081 people on it. A single donor “can save eight lives and enhance over 75 more.”
If you’re not ready to sign up, there are basic safety practices that you can engage in. Gray-Stanford agreed with the list I brainstormed. You can take CPR and First Aid classes one afternoon. The next time you go to the office, grocery store, or local gym, make a mental note of which desk to ask for help, where to find the AED, and how you might lend a hand to someone in distress. These simple steps can make a difference and save lives in your community.
More than a year after his heart transplant, Gray-Stanford feels healthy, follows his diet, and maintains a high-level workout schedule. He is grateful about his new heart and happy to share his story. Anyone can make changes in their own lives wherever they are, whether they feel that they aren’t “exercising much” or they’ve eaten “too many chips.”
“I believe that everyone is entitled to do what they want to do, but one of the reasons why I talk about it is to get the word out there. If I can provide a modicum of inspiration to anybody and get through to one person, or two, three or four people, that would be great.”
If you want to hear fascinating Monk anecdotes from Jason Gray-Stanford, check out The Randy Disher Podcast website. Visit the 2022 Transplant Games website to register and find the schedule of events.