With grit and gratitude, stroke survivor plays on

By American Heart Association News

Dave Kim, preparing to play post-stroke. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)
Stroke survivor Dave Kim at the Red Cross Gala in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)

Dave Kim can hardly remember a time he wasn't making music. He plays three instruments – most notably the electric violin – and has performed at countless weddings and in concerts around the world, opening for such acts as Hootie and the Blowfish.

So after having a stroke in August 2016 at age 42, he called upon his music training to help him recover.

While in intensive care, Kim used what strength he had to focus, not on the proper notes or certain chords or harmonies, but on his right thumb. He willed that thumb to move. On Day Five, it did.

Then came research, including the discovery that the way musicians' brains were formatted could help aid stroke recovery.

"When communication cuts off from the brain to the limbs," he said, "the brain finds other ways to communicate with the limbs." That ability is called neuroplasticity. Reading about it gave Kim impetus to work on each finger, each arm, each leg.

"I found that everything I've done in my life is therapy," he said.

Dave Kim recuperates in the hospital after his stroke. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)
Dave Kim recuperates in the hospital after his stroke. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)

Kim had his stroke while recording a music video in his California home. While playing, his right arm gave way. Then his right leg went limp. He was able to call a doctor friend. A neighbor drove him to the hospital. Kim's blood pressure was measured at a dangerous 230/130. An MRI showed a blood clot in the brain.

The stroke left him unable to stand, much less play his beloved instruments. He felt trapped in his body and, he said, "buried alive." He feared being in the hospital forever and nobody remembering him.

But when Kim shared his plight on social media, dozens and dozens of fans and friends came to visit. They posted well wishes. Their support overwhelmed his spirits.

"I do matter," Kim realized.

Longtime friend Will O'Brien said that when he visited Kim in the hospital, he could sense a change. Not in the obvious physical way, but more deeply. The stroke, he said, gave Kim "a new lease on life. It was one of those tragic events he turned into a true blessing."

After leaving the hospital, Kim spent three weeks in rehab, working to regain the ability to walk, to play music, to do everyday tasks often taken for granted. He also learned about strokes – which he, like many people, thought only happen to the elderly.

Looking back, he sees signs that pointed the way to his stroke. Each of his parents had had one. He was overweight and not eating a healthy diet. He didn't exercise. His cholesterol level and his blood pressure were high. And while he cherished time with his two young sons, raising them as a single parent was stressful.

Dave Kim (center) ice skates with sons Brandon Kim (left), and Christian Kim before his stroke. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)
Dave Kim, with his sons Brandon (left) and Christian, before his stroke. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kim)

Kim is now on medications that have helped lower his blood pressure and reduce his cholesterol. He's eating better. He's lost weight and has a lot more energy. And he's changed for the better in another way, too, because of something he gleaned while at the hospital: Acceptance.

"Once I had acceptance, I kind of had some gratitude," he said. "I've had a tremendous life."

When something tragic happens to people, O'Brien said, it brings out their true character. They ask, "Who am I at the core?" And, "Is this a chance to be a victim or to bring a message of positivity?"

Kim chose positivity.

He now uses his experience and his talent to help others in such ways as speaking out on stroke awareness. And though he made his name by recording popular music, his life mission now is to inspire people through mindful and meditative music.

"For sure I've learned about myself," he said. "I just have a lot of grit, a lot of gratitude, and confidence to believe in myself."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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