Strokes aren’t just something that affect the elderly — as this singular man discovered the day he suddenly couldn’t speak.
I don’t know how long I stood there, motionless with a blank expression on my face, but it was long enough that the other students started to worry. A few seconds before, I’d begun to stand up from my kneeling position on the floor, just as I’d done a thousand times in my martial arts classes, going to one knee and then standing — but this time, it was different.
As I rose, my brain spasmed slightly and I went completely blank. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a vein had ruptured on the left side of my brain and was bleeding into my skull. I was having a stroke.
One of my classmates came over and looked at me, deep concern on her face. “Are you OK?” she asked. I was unable to answer. The mechanism inside my brain that forms and speaks words was out of order. She took me by the arm and walked me to a spot where I could sit. Later, I was told I tried to say something, but it sounded like I was speaking in tongues. Someone called 911.
Inside my head, the fact that I couldn’t speak seemed more amusing than frightening. I knew something was wrong, but how serious could it be? I felt no pain, no disorientation or dizziness. All my body parts seemed to be working. Except for this silly glitch with my mouth, I felt fine. I even got up and walked to the men’s room to change my clothes.
When I walked out of the restroom, I was surprised to see paramedics waiting for me. I thought, “Is this really necessary?” If I could have pulled the words from my brain somehow, I might have told them not to bother, but I couldn’t, so I went along.
The paramedics sat me down, and very calmly assessed my condition. They checked my eyes and asked me questions. I can’t swear that I’m remembering this 100 percent correctly, but I do recall that they asked if I knew where I lived and I nodded. Then they asked if I could tell them how to get to my home. I couldn’t even form a concept of how to answer.
They realized quickly what was going on. It was obvious to everyone but me. My posture and my attitude must have told the paramedics that I wasn’t in immediate danger of dying, and I didn’t seem to be getting worse, but they still wanted to transport me to the hospital, and again, I couldn’t really argue with them, quite literally. I recall asking them, with sincere innocence, if I could follow the ambulance in my car because I didn’t want to leave it there overnight. Judging from the looks on their faces, that was one of my worst ideas of all time. At least they let me walk to the ambulance and salvage some sense of dignity.
Strokes have been in the news a lot recently. In early August, Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Mike Patterson fell to the ground during practice, his body shaking uncontrollably. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with something called an arterioveinous malformation, a condition that can lead to a stroke.
Earlier this year, a Boston-based brain anatomist and researcher named Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., was making the rounds of talk shows to promote her 2008 book, “My Stroke of Insight.” Taylor gives us an inside look at the cascading loss of brain function during her own stroke, how she managed to save herself and then fight her way back to a complete recovery. I’m a little biased now, but this book should be required reading for all of us.
Strokes are very common and there is a good chance you you’ll be touched by one in some way — either personally or through a friend or family member. I watched my mother die of a massive stroke 33 years ago. My father also died of a stroke. Now I’ve had one of my own. That’s three and counting for me.
Here are some facts about stroke from the American Stroke Association web site:
- Nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year. That’s about one stroke every 40 seconds.
- Stroke is the No. 3 leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.
- About 137,000 people die each year from strokes. That’s about 1 of every 18 deaths. On average, every 4 minutes someone dies of stroke.
- About 40 percent of stroke deaths occur in males, and 60 percent in females.
- The 2006 stroke death rates per 100,000 population for specific groups were 41.7 for white males, 41.1 for white females, 67.7 for black males and 57.0 for black females.
- In 2010, Americans paid about $73.7 billion for stroke-related medical costs and disability.
How do you like those numbers? If you’d asked me before April 5 about the chances of me having a stroke, I would have laughed and given that Alfred E. Newman response, “What, me worry?” It couldn’t happen here — too young, too active, too healthy, blah, blah, blah … Before my stroke, I never suspected that something so dangerous was lurking inside my skull.
A stroke is the result of the disruption of blood flow to the brain or blood circulation inside the brain. If a clot blocks the flow or if a blood vessel bursts and spills blood out into the brain, it can’t get the blood and the oxygen it needs and starts to die. According to Taylor’s book, about 87 percent of strokes are caused by clots and the remainder are the result of hemorrhages.
By the time I got to the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center that night, I was already starting to get back my ability to speak. An MRI showed a pool of blood in the left rear quarter of my brain near the area that helps us make words. But the MRI didn’t explain what caused the stroke in the first place. Without a good diagnosis, it’s hard to develop a reliable prognosis. My doctors were in the dark, at least for a while. If knowledge is power, ignorance is powerlessness. Not knowing why the stroke happened gave me a huge amount of anxiety.
Nearly four months later, an interventional neuro-radiologist ran a catheter from my right groin area up my carotid artery and shot dye into my brain. A fluoroscope revealed a fistula, an abnormal connection between an artery and a vein. If you think of an artery as a fire hose, and a vein as a garden hose, you start to get the idea. Fortunately, it was located in an area that allowed it to be treated without surgery.
On July 26, I went back to UCLA so the same doctor could run another catheter (a much smaller one) all the way up into my brain to the site of my fistula. After threading that amazing filament to the right spot, he injected a compound into the fistula that hardens and forms a plug that should last the rest of my life. The next day, the doctor gave me the good news; l could resume my life without restrictions and without risk, or at least without risk from that fistula.
Today, I call it my “stroke of luck” — a gentle early warning that allowed me to solve the problem without suffering a more devastating stroke.
It’s also my stroke of thanks to whatever power in the universe that kept the veins in my head from exploding with more force; for letting me escape relatively unscathed from something that kills many people each year. I also want to thank my Aikido crew — Larry, Wendy, Joel and Mike — who took care of me in those moments after the stroke happened. Finally, I’m grateful to my family and friends who have been so supportive these last few months.
The advice I want to offer is this: respect your life. Treat it as the miracle it truly is and tell people how you feel, because there may come a day when you’re not able to say anything at all.
Copyright © Rick Ruiz/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.