This is one of my “Life’s Stories”. I’m recounting it here, so that in 10, 20, or 40 years from now, I can remember all the details, because I know some of them, just like all other memories…will begin to fade away.
September 10th, 2017. It was a wonderful fall, Sunday morning. 6:30AM and was starting just like any other day.
I was still feeling great after finishing well at the Keystone Triathlon about 3 weeks prior, which was about a 1 mile swim, 25 mile bike, and 6.2 mile run. The summer of training and running 6 miles per day for 30 days in July left me in about the best cardio shape I had been in, since I was probably 30 years old. My nagging cold that needed treated with steroids and antibiotics was finished causing issues for me (I had sought treatment a few days after finishing the Keystone triathlon). It was a persistent cough, that I had for about 2 months. I didn’t want there to be any lingering effects for the my upcoming Savageman triathlon…which was only 6 days away.
I love to get up and get going each morning, and that morning was no different. Started my morning off with some breakfast and then headed to the bathroom. Sat down on the toilet, and then, my world, my families world, and my entire existence and being changed in the span of about the next 7 seconds.
The sensation was unmistakable, and unforgettable. It felt like this sudden, numbing rush, swept down my left arm from my shoulder to my fingertips. And I thought to myself, “Wow, I’ve never felt a feeling like that in my life ever before” and realized that something wasn’t right. I tried reaching for the toilet paper, and I wasn’t able to grasp anything in my left hand. 4 seconds have now passed. I tried to holler for my wife, Annie, knowing something didn’t seem right, and a garble came out of my mouth. It was at that moment that I realized I may be having a stroke.
I quickly made it off the toilet and knew I needed to get to our bedroom quickly to wake my wife. I was very scared knowing that in 10 seconds my body had just shut down that fast, and I realized I may not make it to her bedside. Upon arrival, I quickly shook her leg and she sat up quickly and said…”What? what’s wrong?”. I mumbled through my drooping face “I think I’m having a stroke”. And she said “What??”. I mumbled it again.
She sat up quickly and said…”What? What’s wrong?” I mumbled through my drooping face, “I think I’m having a stroke”
At that point, she sprung out of bed, and somehow in the midst of all the chaos, she managed to call 911 and locate an aspirin quickly. Amazingly, we never kept aspirin in our house. Two weeks prior, my wife sent me into the store to get some ibuprofen, and while I was in the store, she called me and asked me to get aspirin instead. To which, may have been one of the best decisions ever made in our lives.
I was walking back the hallway, and my oldest daughter Elliana, who is 16, was walking between the bedroom doors and she was a little confused and sleepy, and groggy, and asked, “What is going on?” and I told her “I think I’m having a stroke”. Bear in mind…this is probably only about 45 seconds after I first noticed my arm go numb. The drooping of my face and slurring of my speech must have been appalling. Because the look that came across my daughters face of pure terror is one I will never forget. Matter of fact, it brings tears to my eyes sitting here typing this, just thinking about her reaction. She had a quick freakout moment, and then helped Annie to find her purse, etc.
After passing Ellie in the hall, I went into the boys and girls bedrooms and woke my other 2 kids up. My oldest is now at college, so he wasn’t there. At first, the younger kids thought I had been shot. I had a large wet spot on my shirt from where the water dribbled out of my mouth as I was taking the aspirin. I poured water into my mouth, and it was just coming back out of 1/2 my face that wasn’t working. I explained to them, I thought I was having a stroke and that I needed to talk to them.
Sitting down, I gathered the 3 kiddos around our couch. In the moment, what I said next wasn’t hard. Hearing it now, it is hard. I gave the kids some parting words. I told them “if this was it”, that I loved them very much. I told them to be strong and courageous. And i told them, no matter what happens, stay Faithful, and if this is my time, that one day, we will see each other again in Heaven.
I made sure Annie knew where “the file was”. It’s a document titled “If Brandon dies”. It details everything my wife would need to know, and who to go and see in order to take care of all of our business affairs and determine what to do next.
2 or 3 minutes have now elapsed and I was simply lying on the couch with 1/2 of my body not really able to move. Within about 10 minutes, I was in an ambulance on my way to the hospital.
Several Days Later
Over the course of the next several days, doctors told me many different things. I had a cryptogenic stroke, which basically means, they couldn’t determine a cause. What I did know:
- I didn’t have Diabetes
- No brain tumors
- No carotid artery blockages
- No signs of Atrial Fibrillation
- No Blood clots able to be discovered anywhere
- Blood Pressure was fine.
- Cholesterol ratios was one of the five best the cardiologist ever saw. It was almost a 1.0 ratio. I didn’t even know what that meant. Actually, I didn’t even really know what a cardiologist or a neurologist was. I never had a need before that.
It’s kind of crazy. September 9th, I didn’t know anything about strokes, other than they can make you lose abilities in about 1/2 your body. I also learned about 1 out of 5 people who suffer a stroke die. Within 3 days, I had heard, studied, and read so much about strokes, I felt like I was an expert on the subject.
I had regained most of my motor skills within a couple hours of the stroke. This rapid regaining of my abilities led the doctors to at first suspect a TIA. Subsequent Brain MRI’s on the 2nd day at hospital showed otherwise…that I had a full Stroke and suffered a small spot of permanent damage to my brain. (Great! That’s all I needed, I barely had any extra brain capacity to spare before that)
What the doctors DID discover, was that I had a small hole in my heart called a PFO. (Patent Foramen Ovale…Pronounced Payton FoorAyMen Ovaylee. Now, a PFO hole in your heart isn’t unheard of. As a matter of fact, about 25% of the overall population still has one. Everybody has one before they are born. Once you are born, instead of breathing through amniotic fluid, the hole typically closes and seals up, and then you begin to breathe through your lungs. Yet, 1 out of 4, still have it, and for most people, it never become a problem.
Never before have I ever had what I would call anxiety. Sure, sometimes things would cause me to worry, but I never experienced anything like those first 4 to 6 weeks after my stroke. I had troubles going to the bathroom. My arm would feel like it was going numb, when it really wasn’t. Sleep was hard to come by. I would wake up quite a few times each night, feeling like I was having my stroke all over again. It just felt like my arm was going numb. My head would swirl with all kinds of thoughts. I’d have to test my blood pressure just to make sure everything was ok.
It was a long couple months. But, eventually, the anxiety mostly subsided.
The Treatment (that didn’t happen)
The local doctors recommended I take (1) 325 mg aspirin a day. If I have a second stroke, then they would consider putting me on blood thinners. And then, if I had a 3rd stroke (seriously…a 3rd stroke), they would consider a PFO closure procedure.
The Wife (who is persistent)
The thoughts of waiting and hoping and praying I don’t have a 3rd stroke didn’t sit well with my wife, thankfully.
She went on a mission to find me some other second opinions. What we discovered was that UPMC had a Multidisciplinary Stroke unit. Basically, that means, they have a group of doctors who are specialists in their own fields, who work together as a team to solve difficult cases. And being a young (in stroke terms, anyway) 45 year old male with no known causes allowed me to be seen by them.
Dr. Starr is supposedly one of best “young cryptogenic stroke” neurologists in Pittsburgh. I met with him, he reviewed everything thoroughly and suggested I talk with Dr. Conrad Smith, who was supposedly one of the best cardiologists in Pittsburgh. Dr. Starr was thinking that I should probably consider having the PFO closed.
The Treatment that DID Happen – Heart Surgery
Dr. Smith also recommended PFO closure and it was conducted on December 5th, nearly 3 months after my stroke. In 2017, several stroke studies were published in the New England journal of medicine documenting that statistically speaking, young crptogenic stroke victims are able to decrease their chances of followup strokes. This was the culmination of at least 2, and possibly 3 different studies following hundreds of patients, for about 5 or 10 years.
I had never really known what a heart catherization was prior. I heard of them, but didn’t really know what it was. Basically, I had a heart catherization procedure done, and then they insert a long piano wire thing through the hole and it has some “umbrella” things on the end that end up closing the hole. Here is a 1 minute long video that kind of gives you an idea of what they do for the PFO closure.
It’s now been over 6 weeks since my heart surgery. I’m feeling fine overall. Every once in a wall, it sort of feels like my heart is racing and that sometimes I think I can feel the device in my heart. I’m now off blood thinners and am simply taking a baby aspirin every day and a dose of Lipitor. I have some followup blood testing in about 4 weeks that will hopefully show that I can drop or reduce the Lipitor also. I’d like to just be taking the baby aspirin daily.
I did put on quite a few pounds during my off months, and for some reason, during the month of December, I ate like every single Christmas cookie I could get my hands on. So, now that I’m cleared medically to do anything I want physically, I just started back earnestly by creating Challenge 2 and 3. I’m going to eat according to MyFitnessPal and exercise for at least 30 minutes, every day.
What Caused it?
While it’s very difficult to know for sure, my hematologist (the blood doctor) was the original one to review my records and recommend I get some other opinions about having the PFO closure. We spent about 2 months making sure that I didn’t have some kind of “Anti Cardio” Lipid antibodies or something elevated that may have been a contributor to the stroke. One indicator was slightly elevated out of my blood testing right after my stroke. If I had indeed had elevated proteins in my body, then I may need to be on blood thinners regularly instead of just aspirin.
He said, its a possibility, that due to my taking the medicines and having my cold, my blood may have been a little stickier than it normally is. I may have had some blood clot up, travel into my heart, crossover into my left atrium through the PFO hole, and shoot up to my brain, causing the stroke.
Normally, a blood clot travels into the heart, and then shoots from the right ventricle to the lungs, where it is typically either absorbed, or causes an embolism. Which, don’t get me wrong, an embolism isn’t great either, but it’s much better than having a stroke. So, while there aren’t any guarantees, and nothing is ever certain, hopefully, my heart procedure will have taken away about 90% of the different things that could have caused me to have a stroke.
Nothing is certain. Your days are numbered. Make sure you live each one as if it were your last. The crazy thing is, I was living life daily as if it could be my last when it happened. I wasn’t taking my days for granted and was living life to its fullest. If it was my time to leave this Earth, I was ready. I was right with the Lord, and had done the best job I could trying to be the best Dad, husband, and leader that I could be.
Things are now getting back to normal. We still can’t really say the “S” word (stroke) around my wife or daughter. Hopefully, that will never be something we have to relive again.
Not familiar with Strokes?
FAST is an acronym the medical world uses. Face (dropping or sagging), Arm (weakness or numbness), Speech (garbled or difficult to understand). Time to Call. If you or a loved one are experiencing those conditions, please get them help right away. Also, would be a great idea to keep some 325mg uncoated aspirin in your house that can be crushed up and put into their mouths.