Stroke: But I was Healthy!
Steve Boorstein: stroke survivor, father, author, songwriter and speaker ...
I was 52 years young and an expert skier, but it didn't keep me from being blindsided by a 200-pound snowboarder ... at least that's what must have hit me. And the person did not even stop!
After waking from being knocked out cold--and taking my first-ever toboggan ride down the mountain--the Doc conveyed the bad news: a dislocated shoulder, four cracked ribs, a floater in my left eye (that I still have eight years later) a whiplash and, unbeknownst to me or the Doc at the Vail emergency room, I'd also suffered a dissection in my right carotid artery, that had not been detected!
It took about 3 months for the ribs and shoulder to heal, which is about the same time it took for the unidentified "flap" or dissection to narrow my carotid and form a clot in the artery. Five mini-strokes later--after driving lost for hours on the Denver highways--I limped into the Boulder emergency room and declared, "I think I'm having a stroke!" Disoriented by the affect of the TIA's, I was still thinking that I was too young and healthy to have a stroke!
Here's the thing ... I had zero risk factors; I wasn't diabetic, hypertensive, overweight, a smoker, a drinker or even predisposed to heart disease. I had zero plaque and my cholesterol was low. I ate well, slept well and exercised everyday. As it turns out, if you are a stroke in waiting, being active or even athletic will not necessarily prevent the attack--and being active may actually cause a dissection that can lead to stroke, as it did mine and thousands of others! Read on ...
It can sneak up on the unsuspecting and surprise even the well-informed, but Stroke's biggest targets are the oblivious: the people that don't know, that don't believe, and that can't even fathom the possibility that they could be a "stroke in waiting." I was one of them and I didn't know the signs or the acronym "FAST." But I do now!
After a crazy night in the ER, hoping the Heparin blood thinner would keep me from a major stroke, I was finally called for my procedure: a supposedly routine stent insertion up through the femoral artery to my carotid to "press" the clot into the wall of the artery, hence reopening blood flow. But it turns out that I really was too healthy! Because I had no plaque "coating" the carotid, it treated the stent as an "invader," violently shaking the clot, releasing pieces to my brain. I yelled out that my left side felt cold, like rippling water, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery.
"How Are You Feeling?"
... my Doc asks, as I awake from the sedative ... "I have the worst headache ever!" She started laughing out of relief that I could actually speak, but I didn't share her excitement. I later learned that I was paralyzed on the left side; had lost my vision on the left side; could not add 2+2, read a book, or tie my shoe ... but I took it all in stride, knowing that I'd do whatever it took to get better!
What I Learned: Do you have a couple of hours?
Most stroke survivors work everyday to get better--and it's an uphill battle, as we all know. We may make incredible strides one day and then falter the next, and then pick ourselves up to do it all again. But here's the twist and the beauty: whether we realize it or not, the extraordinary effort we put forth to recover will pay off "in spades" for many years to come. Let me explain ...
If you can recover or even improve, be it from paralysis, cognitive damage, the inability to walk or tie your shoe, then you will have accomplished something monumental! And you should be incredibly proud, so pat yourself on the back and take a bow. You have reinvented yourself, again!
Now, take this incredible effort and apply it to every challenge you face, be it personal or professional: break down every step and apply the same steely focus and expectation to every undertaking, no matter the size or importance! If you can come back from stroke, then you can do almost anything! And don't be surprised if you surpass your pre-stroke accomplishments in some ways. I did.
Moving Forward: Philosophically
It can take years to recover ... and maybe even a lifetime. We will have to put forth extraordinary effort to do the simplest, most basic things. And, as most of us have to realize, we will have to compromise and adjust our expectations more than once. And, what once seemed so important and meaningful before has little or no relevance now. Life is elastic, just like our re-forming brain.
Eight years later, after relearning the fundamentals of, well, everything ... I ski and play tennis better than I ever did before; I can drive and ride my bike (not in the street); I am more patient and empathetic with people; I never stress the small stuff; and I am not as hard on myself or others as I used to be.
I believe that if we are strong and willful before our stroke, we will be strong and willful in recovery. It's all about the attitude. If we can maintain a sense of humor--even after a year of trying to tie our shoes--then we have a much better chance of long-term recovery. We must put it all out there, even if, at the time, we can't fully understand why.
A Quick Anecdote that Speaks a Thousand Words
I walk into the hospital gift shop to hand deliver my new book, Different Strokes, which I explain to the elderly volunteer. We chat about the book and she checks me out from behind the counter.
"I have a friend that had a stroke," she says, "and he's just starting to walk again, so he's doing pretty well!" I assume that most senior citizens have experienced stroke on some level and know something. I look at her, believing she must see the error in her words ... but she does not. I don't fault her at all, as she's never had a stroke. I lean over the counter and earnestly share my practiced response to such an inaccurate and naive statement. I want her to understand how debilitating and depressing stroke can be--and how looks can deceive.
"You know," I say, "a stroke survivor can stand before you on their own two feet, speak, and appear 'normal,' and still be incapable of holding a job, remembering a phone number or finding their home from five blocks away!" She paused and then smiled apologetically. "Thank you for sharing, I had no idea. You look so healthy and alive ..."
Believe it ... or Not
I would not give back my stroke, even if I could; even with my continued deficits and fading memory. Why? Because of the things I've learned, the people I've met and the way I now look at the world!
Steve Boorstein * Different Strokes * http://www.survivingstroke.com