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Tackling a Whole New Animal: Stroke
By Verna Noel Jones
Roping a 250-pound calf on a daily basis was a routine task for rodeo star Stran Smith. A nationally ranked calf roper, this southern cowboy had proven that he could successfully conquer a calf. But at age 32, Smith faced a new opponent: Stroke. Tackling this animal was a very different battle.
On April 26, 2003, Smith was preparing for roping practice at his ranch in Texas, when he realized he was having trouble with his speech. "I was having a conversation and I slurred a word,” he said. “I tried to repeat what I said and nothing would come out. I knew something was wrong and I had no idea what it was. I started checking my motor skills but that was all okay. I had all my mobility and I wasn't dizzy. I just couldn't talk.” According to Smith, it was like something had taken away his voice.
Smith knew he needed help; he drove himself to a local hospital, where he was told to make his way to a major hospital that was able to handle his condition. So he got back in his truck and made the two-hour trip to Amarillo, Texas.
There, medical testing revealed a stroke caused by a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a congenital defect also known as a “hole in the heart.” It results when the upper two chambers of the heart fail to close after birth, and affects one in five people.
In Smith's case, a blood clot had found its way through the hole and up to his brain, causing the temporary loss of speech. At first, an Amarillo cardiologist planned to put him on a lifetime of blood thinner drugs.
“I was happy at first because he told me I was gonna live a long, happy life,” said Smith. “That was important because my wife Jennifer (a television reporter and former Miss Rodeo America) was pregnant with our first child, Stone. But then I realized that puttin' me on Coumadin® (a blood thinner) would mean my life as I knew it would be over.”
A blood thinner would put him at greater risk for bleeding — a life threatening problem when you work in a highly athletic contact sport in which cuts and scrapes are all in a day's work. To avoid the risk of bleeding to death, he would have to give up his roping career. Smith was devastated.
That's when supportive family members jumped in and helped him find a new plan. In less than a week, Smith walked into the Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston for a treatment to close up the hole in his heart. Stroke specialists teamed up to thread a mesh device through a vein in Smith's groin up to his heart, where it was carefully placed to block the hole. The device is not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for this use, so Smith's doctors got a special exemption for the surgery. The surgery took just an hour and he was out of the hospital the next day. Smith rested for six weeks to allow time for the device to be accepted by his heart and for full closure of the opening.
By July, Smith was happily back in the saddle. Since then, he has won countless events in tie-down roping across the nation. In 2005, he ranked 4th in the world for his sport.
As for his recovery, he regained 98 percent of his speech and recently was hired to do a radio show for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (the Super Bowl of rodeo events).
In fact, today there are few tell-tell signs of the stroke that nearly took away his livelihood. Still, Smith is clearly a changed man with a new outlook on life.
“I thought I had a pretty good perspective on life before. But like they say, you're not ready to live until you're ready to die,” says Smith. “I did some soul searching about what really matters and now my life is much richer and fuller. I never questioned why it was happening to me. I just wanted to know what I was supposed to learn from this life-changing experience.”
In an interview with ESPN.com ProRodeo, Smith said, “I never imagined that my career would blossom so much after the stroke. I feel truly blessed. During the time I was sidelined, I had a chance to re-evaluate not just my career, but my life and it helped me get focused and get back that eye of the tiger.”
Today, Smith continues his hectic but fulfilling life in calf-roping competition. He admits it's stressful — he's away from home up to 250 days a year, logging 100,000 to 150,000 miles, competing several hundred times and investing big bucks in travel, horses and vehicles.
“It's draining mentally and physically,” he says, but this life has been his passion since age 16. Now at age 36, Smith knows his rodeo career will soon wind down. He'll miss it, but he's also looking forward to spending quality time with his wife and young sons, Stone, 3, and Scout, 1.
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