January 5 was a crisp and clear Saturday in Portland. I had no inkling that my life, in the blink of an eye, was about to turn upside down.
I ran an easy three miles along the Willamette River that morning. That afternoon I watched the NFL playoffs. The Ravens were playing catch-up to the Chargers. I lost interest and decided to take a shower during halftime.
While in the shower I noticed my left leg getting wobbly, but I didn’t think much of it. I got out, shaved and brushed my teeth as I would on any other day. Then my legs began to get strangely sluggish. I had to sit on the ground to get dressed.
I became more confused. I didn’t understand what was happening but large neon letters spelling out: “Get to the hospital, right now” began flashing in my brain.
I couldn’t walk, so I started pushing myself on my belly down the hallway of my condo. I used my feet against closet openings to get traction.
I was having a hemorrhagic stroke. It came without warning. My blood pressure was 120/80 and my weight 190 pounds at five-feet-nine. I was fit and my cholesterol was low.
I was just able to reach up to the handle of my front door. I pulled it open and started yelling, “Somebody help me,” into the hallway.
Neighbors heard me and called 911. The EMTs arrived within 15 minutes. They kept opening the door into my forehead — creating my only bruises from the day.
“People always collapse just inside the front door,” I recall an EMT saying.
Beating the odds
I never lost consciousness. As the ambulance went toward the Oregon Health & Science University, I clearly recall wondering what would happen if the rear doors came open, my gurney flew out and I went hurtling towards the waterfront. I must have seen that in a movie. I arrived at the hospital less than two hours after the onset of my stroke.
Nearly 700,000 people die from strokes each year. Luke Perry, star of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” recently died at the age of 52 from a stroke. I am 68.
Most common (80%) are ischemic or clot-related strokes that block the flow of oxygen to the brain, causing brain cells to die.
Mine was a “bleeding” or “hemorrhagic” stroke caused by blood leaking into the brain from a faulty blood vessel. While the blood irritates the brain, it eventually is reabsorbed and usually doesn’t cause the long-term damage that a clot does.
However, nearly two-thirds of hemorrhagic stroke victims die within the first 48 hours. I was fortunate to be alive. My cognitive functions were not impaired, although I was left with a paralyzed left arm and leg.
Rehab — and progress
In my intensive-care unit were those closest to me — my daughter Alexandra, her mother Cindy Banzer and my dear friend Michael Pierce. I recall a tearful Alex saying, “Please don’t die, Daddy.”
I was told I had a year of boot-camp rehab ahead. I canceled all my SCM engagements to focus on healing.
That was a little over two months ago. I have been in intensive rehab since. Every day is a never-ending series of exercises, electrical stimulation to wake up sleeping muscles and training my body to rewire itself — and get strong again.
I have regained full use of my left shoulder, arm and hand. Although they are weak (I am typing this myself), they are getting stronger fast. To my despair, my left (clutch) leg was paralyzed for two months, until suddenly it began to wake up.
My leg muscles have atrophied, but rebuilding muscles is a challenge I am familiar with from my days as a Juilliard dancer.
I exercise an extra two hours every day, urging and encouraging my blood-addled neural synapses to reopen communication to my muscles.
It’s a slow, laborious process, but I treasure each step towards normalcy.
A new life
I plan to be able to go home to my condo in the near future; 11-year-old Bradley lives with me half the time, and he is eager for his daddy to come home.
He’s ready to be my partner in my recovery. He’s volunteered to go shopping for me at the nearby Safeway. He will use FaceTime to help pick out groceries and then cook. Grilled salmon with baked potatoes is high on our list.
My neurosurgeon is most pleased with my progress. I have been cleared to drive an automatic, and I expect to be able to operate a clutch soon.
I’m hoping to walk without a cane by the end of the year, although I may always have a slight limp.
I am musing about how I will recast my life when I am through this recovery process. I will set aside more time to smell the roses.
I’ll be participating in the SCM 1000 this summer, and I marvel at the delicious array of 356s and 911s entered.
Chester Allen, Jim Pickering, Erin Olson and the gang have kept the finely tuned machine that is SCM running like a Dan Gurney-driven GT40 Mk IV at Le Mans. Each month, another conversation-provoking and opinion-filled issue of SCM arrives. We have a world-class team of writers, and I’m so proud of the insights they offer to all of us.
This stroke has been the challenge of my life. I thank all of you for the hundreds and hundreds of messages of support. I can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or via my Facebook page. ♦