For the past five and a half years, I’d been semi-serious about getting into (and maintaining) decent physical condition.
It was January of 2013 when this became a thing for me. I’d topped out at 201 pounds, too much weight for my 5-foot-11, ectomorphic frame. My knees were hurting, my recurring lower back pain was recurring more often, I felt slow and sluggish. The main reason, though, was my son, Joe, who has significant mobility issues.
I was 52 and my life had reached the far side of its arc, and my boy is only going to keep growing. I mean, he was and is small enough to lift fairly easily, but the way I’ve explained it before is, “I’ll be lifting him the rest of my life, so I want to get stronger before he gets larger.”
So, not being made of Corvette money, my midlife crisis manifested in gym memberships. I cut back on beer, lost unnecessary weight and put on necessary muscle, and patted myself arrogantly on the back whenever I managed to hold my own with the 20-somethings on a basketball court.
This summer, as I approached 58, the same age my father was when he died, I was reaching personal bests in silly things like pull-ups and the bench press; I was holding steady at 175 pounds; I was taking the stairs two at a time, running; my knees felt better, my back stronger, my three-point shot was singing; and I was feeling genuinely positive about the road ahead. Then I had a stroke.
* * *
The shrill, kryptonic buzzing in my right ear came suddenly, drowning out the TV, an electric bee in my head signaling the quick arrival of a darkening, viscous cloud, slithering inside my skull, gripping my damaged brain like a phantom hand, separating me from who I was, what I thought, and how I lived.
“Jane, get me an aspirin,” I said, or my echo said. “I think I might be having a stroke.”
The buzz went away, along with my equilibrium. The room spun as two wives handed me two aspirin and two glasses of water and my two sons sat nearby in their two wheelchairs, probably wondering what the hell was going on with his/their dad/dads. My body gave in to gravity, tilting slightly left on the couch as a fading Seinfeld laugh track mocked the slow and muddy descent into the next chapter of my life.
“I’m going to puke,” I said, the understatement of the night. The bucket and I would be intimate for the next six or seven hours.
It was 7 p.m., Sunday, August 5th, my big sister’s birthday. The next day, Joe would turn 17.
The first pair of EMTs determined that it was not a stroke or a heart issue – all of the vital signs were excellent, including blood pressure, which is odd, because it had been routinely high for the past year or so. The guys asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I refused. Not going to the hospital right then might have been the smartest, luckiest move we made that night (well, that and the aspirin).
They left, the dizziness stayed. The room and I spun in opposite directions. Every move I made equaled more puke. So I sat, or leaned, motionless, sweating like crazy. Jane asked if I wanted to try and go to bed. Just thinking about moving down the hall to our bedroom made me puke.
“I’ll stay here until my head clears,” I said.
The couch was my universe, my hell, my salvation, for hours. I puked until there was nothing left to spew, and after that, made loud, heaving noises that, in my memory and imagination, sounded like hippopotamuses fucking.
Around 2 a.m., Jane, unable to sleep, called the EMTs again. This time there was no question. I had to go to the hospital, and I was physically unable to get up and walk to our car. In the ER at Northeast Georgia Medical Center they pumped me full of anti-nausea drugs, praise Jesus, and I underwent my second MRI in two weeks (more on that later).
Later, I don’t know how long because the hours moved like wet cement going uphill (which had to be hell on my wife and son, who were at my side for all of this), a tall doctor with the bedside manner of an icicle entered the room and said, “well, you’ve had a stroke …”
Jane and I were like, “but, but, but the EMTs said …”
The EMTs don’t have an adequate test for this kind of stroke, Dr. Antarctica explained succinctly. This, it turns out, was a cerebellar stroke, which accounts for less than 10 percent of all strokes. “If you’re going to have a stroke, this is the one to have,” he said. “You’re very lucky.”
Excuse me if I don’t get all Lou Gehrig about this, doc. That’s what I wanted to say. But yeah, lucky me, for a whole bunch of reasons, among them the fact that I’m still alive, the fact that this episode revealed I’ve got a hole in my heart that might have killed me eventually, and the fact that, if I’m smart, I should recover fully (or close to it).
* * *
A cerebellar stroke is what happens when a blood vessel is either blocked (ischemic stroke) or bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke), causing complete interruption to the cerebellum, which sits in the back of your skull, where it controls movement and balance.
My desperate cry of, “aspirin, please,” could have been really stupid, but turned out to be really lucky because this was the ischemic variety, and aspirin can thin the blood and prevent further clotting. If this had been a hemorrhagic stroke, aspirin could hasten the bleeding.
The cerebellum has symmetrical left and right sides, each controlling movement for the corresponding side of the body. My stroke was on the left side, so my left arm and leg were affected.
One of the first things I tried after coming home from the hospital was playing the guitar. At first I was frustrated, but knowing this would only be temporary, I had to laugh at my callused fingers as they fumbled on the fretboard, struggling to find familiar chords and notes.
The spacey feeling in my arm and leg is gradually receding, but sometimes it feels like I’m stepping into a cloud. I get dizzy and tire easily. I get angry and depressed. Then again, it’s been less than two weeks since the brain fart (which sounds better to me than “stroke”). Patience is a virtue that I have to learn to embrace. Gratitude I’ve got in abundance.
I’m grateful for my daughter, Sam, who flew down from Michigan to see her old man — my lovely little field mouse, my chauffeur who is also a wonderful cook (wasn’t it just yesterday that she was making cupcakes in an Easy-Bake oven?). I’m grateful for her husband, Eric, holding the fort at home, playing bachelor, missing his wife. He is truly one of the funniest people I know. Speaking of funny, I’m grateful for my boy Joe and his wicked sense of humor — he burst out laughing when his mother asked how he felt about his old man using some of his therapy equipment. I’m grateful for my mother’s unconditional love, for my four super siblings, my friends, my co-workers, all amazing human beings.
Mostly, I’m grateful for Jane, my wife and best friend, who has spent the past 17 years as a powerhouse healthcare advocacy on behalf of our son, and the last 30-something years putting up with me and the attendant peaks and valleys. Every day she sets standards that are impossible for me to meet, but give me something to strive for. I had and have exactly the right person in my corner — loving, pragmatic, creative, soulful, more beautiful today than she was the day I met her.
It’s Jane who pointed out that we should be grateful for going to the hospital when we did (rather than hours earlier). That’s because these cerebellar strokes are strange beasts – the symptoms can and have been misdiagnosed, as migraines or food poisoning or meningitis, for example. Such an epic failure can lead to awful circumstances for the patient who isn’t properly treated.
Again: very, very lucky. Today, I consider myself, yada, yada, yada.
The risk factors for this brain monster are the same for other ischemic strokes: hypertension, high cholesterol, heavy smoking, alcohol and/or drug abuse, sedentaru lifestyle. After checking almost everything off the list, and being stuck and prodded for two days, we discovered that my little friend was most likely caused by the hole in my heart. What?
I was born with a hole in my heart and didn’t know it until all this shit. It’s called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO. Usually, a PFO will close shortly after birth, but when they stay open (as they do in 25 percent of us), it can allow clots to pass through the right side of the heart to the left, then travel up to the brain, and then … well, you get the picture.
In my case, the clinicians actually took a picture, running a camera down my throat to get close-ups of my beating heart. My options now are: do nothing (not really an option), treat it with medicine (blood thinners), open-heart surgery (ewwww, no thank you), or an implanted closure device (the newest and from where I’m sitting, maybe the most appealing option). We’ll see. I sense a cardiologist visit in the very near future.
But first, a visit to the neurologist, to establish some kind of baseline for this new chapter of life. I’ve got questions and questions. When can I drive? When can I start working out again? When will the occasional beeping (not buzzing, thank God) and dizziness leave me for good? Do I need yet another MRI?
Oh yeah, about that. Two weeks before all of this went down, I began work on a magazine story about brain research. Part of my own research for the story included undergoing an MRI.
It was an interesting experience. The MRI machine is a tight and incredibly loud space. My ears were plugged to muffle the intense racket, the banging sounds caused by the vibration of metal coils carrying rapid pulses of electricity. After that, I went over the images with a neurologist, a funny guy who said (of course), “we looked inside your head but we couldn’t find anything.”
So yeah, it was interesting, and a little scary – but not nearly as scary as it would be a few weeks later, when I actually needed the thing to look at my broken brain.