After a personal crisis, Lewis Curtis dedicated his fix-it attitude to help people in the wake of disaster –

After a personal crisis, Lewis Curtis dedicated his fix-it attitude to help people in the wake of disaster

He also taught himself how to speak again after a devastating stroke in 2007, a fearful time that changed the trajectory of his life and career—and opened his eyes to suffering in ways that would help him help others later on.

A change of heart

Just before he turned 40, Curtis was at a restaurant preparing his talk for an upcoming tech conference. Suddenly his chest began to hurt and his coworkers noticed an onset of profuse sweating. They rushed him to the hospital, where the doctor said he was having a heart attack.

“They performed an angiogram, where they stick a camera up your leg to have a look at your heart,” Curtis said. “Because my heart was so enlarged, they couldn’t really see what was going on and accidentally hit some filaments, which caused a stroke right there on the operating table.”

When he woke up, he couldn’t speak, write, or spell. He stared at the doctor who was talking to him, thinking, “Why can’t I move my mouth? What’s going on?”

His wife, Linda, flew to the city where the conference was, uncertain what she should expect since the nurses asked her right before her flight if Curtis had problems speaking before. They checked into a hotel for several weeks because Curtis couldn’t fly home. “It was a terrifying experience,” he said. The doctor was uncertain whether Curtis would ever speak again.

So Curtis set to the work of teaching himself how to regain his faculties, through speech therapy and his homegrown resourcefulness.

“You start slowly, remembering how to put every thought into a word. Then you start building phrases. Then you begin putting phrases together. You don’t realize how much concentration and muscle memory it takes to be able to speak. It took a full year. It doesn’t just click and done, you’re back,” he said. He still loses his words when he gets tired or if it’s been a particularly speech-heavy day.

Throughout that time, Curtis tried to keep working when and where he could. Little did he know that when he finally could come back fully to his job, he would have a change of heart about work.

Lewis Curtis and his wife, Linda
Lewis Curtis and his wife, Linda, have a little piece of property in the rural area just north of Redmond, Washington, where they raise goats, care for one honey bee hive, and try to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

For the four years leading up to his stroke, Curtis had been working as an infrastructure field architect at Microsoft—a job he enjoyed—being a hands-on IT person, designing and building servers, and getting everything working. And one of the aspects he enjoyed the most was occasionally being called on for community disaster response, his focus in graduate school. Later, Curtis and a core group of colleagues would be recruited for disasters, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, New Zealand Christchurch earthquake, and the Malaysian Floods, to repair systems, scrambling to spin up servers to get an affected agency online again, donating subscriptions to Office 365 so those affected could get back into their email, or even just offering advice around disaster recovery.

“From 2004 to 2007, I was known for what I was able to do and what I knew. People called it being a ‘brain on a stick,’” Curtis said. “I stretched myself as much as I could and tried to contribute to as many efforts as possible.”

And then Curtis had his stroke.

“Having a stroke changes your life in significant ways,” he said. He’d been an architect and subject matter expert, but things had changed. One of the things he really wanted to do was make more of a difference in the world, for those struggling to establish their new normal in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

“After I recovered from my stroke, I decided to start focusing my capabilities on doing just one thing well: enabling and managing technical disaster response and humanitarian missions.”

Lewis Curtis
Lewis Curtis used Microsoft’s disaster relief program (which he co-founded) to offer help to Nepal’s education system after a devastating earthquake in 2015 destroyed the city’s infrastructure.

Microsoft has always responded to disasters, but the newly reenergized Curtis wanted to formalize the program so employees could help reduce human suffering as fast as possible without wondering how to responsibly help, whether they could get the time off to volunteer, or if they were legally allowed to provide Microsoft resources.

“If we are going to do it, let’s do it right and responsibly,” Curtis said. He and colleague Joel Yoker met with senior leadership at Microsoft, presenting a case for an operational process based on Incident Command Systems, Emergency Declaration legal review and guidance, governance, internal partnerships, and a data-driven program to track the efficacy of disaster response and learn from each mission.

When you experience a disaster, it’s not enough to try to recover the systems and technology you had before in order to bring normalcy, Curtis explained. “The agencies face new realities and challenges and need new tech to address that,” he said. “That’s what the cloud is great for: it helps us rapidly deploy and build new apps to reduce human suffering quickly.”

After years of proving the community model, Microsoft leaders approved Curtis and Yoker’s plan, and Curtis was offered the role as technical director of services disaster response full time.

Relief in action

Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded New Jersey and New York, causing an estimated $50–65 billion in damages and cutting the power to millions of residents for several weeks.

It was the first time that Curtis’s team, which is part of the enterprise services disaster recovery team, mobilized in its official capacity. The team stepped in to assist more than 60 organizations including New York City Transit, the Department of Education, and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In the New York recovery office, the team set up command centers and added brain power to the existing city IT staff with expertise on security, systems and desktop deployment for the new NYC disaster recovery center workers to help citizens in their time of need.

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