Monday, May 18th, 2015 was the scariest day of my life. On that day, I walked into my gym in Biloxi, MS to go through an accelerated chest workout and my life changed forever. I passed out on the coast and woke up about ten days later in a hospital bed in Central Mississippi, unable to walk, speak, or move my left arm. After awakening, I drifted in and out of consciousness for several days, and it was not until I arrived at the third hospital of my ordeal that I finally became aware of what had happened to me. Over the next few weeks, my memories came flooding back to me in a way that finally seemed to form a coherent picture. As with anyone who has not suffered a severe brain injury, my memory is not completely reliable. Now ratchet that up several times, because my brain was starved for oxygen during a significant period of time, and I’m amazed that I can recall what I do. One day while I was in a rehabilitation hospital, I was telling my story to a speech therapist. She pointed out that I should record my story because – in her experience – few people can recall their strokes in such detail. I began trying to keep a mental record of everything I had been through in the past few weeks and everything that would happen afterward. Not knowing what form to publish the memoir in, I finally decided to chronicle my journey in blog form.
This is the continuing story of my post stroke life.
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I believe I should first tell you the story of my stroke. I wanted to save it until I had been blogging for a month or so, but I really should begin with explaining how I got to where I am. Let us begin with the hours leading up to the event.
Working out was always a significant part of my life. It was something I saw as a major component of who I was. However, I had to spend less time in the gym in the week leading up to May 18th because I had begun having terrible headaches a week before. At the time, I had been living in Mississippi for almost four years. Although it was my home state, I had spent the previous nine years in Minnesota, and felt more at home in Minneapolis. I had worked solely for two major companies during my time back in Mississippi, and I had hoped to use one to transfer back to the Twin Cities. Since each offered virtually unlimited overtime, I found myself constantly working as much as possible. When I moved home in 2011, it was only supposed to be for a year or two. However, with the increase in income and the low cost of living, I had gradually lost the sense of urgency I felt during my first year back. Still I promised myself that this move to Mississippi was only temporary.
I spent two years in Jackson, then I accepted a job offer on the coast. My life started to feel fairly comfortable. My social life wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but I could work enough hours to pay for things I wanted, and enjoy the time I wasn’t at the office. Nonetheless, I really missed my old life and friends in the Midwest, and I wanted to meet someone with whom I could settle down. In January of 2015, I decided that, despite how rewarding the pay was, it was time to return to Minneapolis to begin the next phase of my life. Thus, I decided to move back in August of the same year. I instantly added the stress of worrying over the logistics of the move to the list of things that fed my insomnia and high blood pressure
Around the beginning of May, I began to have headaches. They were not too painful at first, and I could borrow headache medicine from coworkers to get through the day. However, they gradually became worse over the next few days until I could no longer work through them. I spent most of the weekend prior to the event taking aspirin and trying to rest my head. Though I would have normally spent Saturday on my friend’s cattle ranch, shoveling feed, tackling calves, or climbing ladders to roof the tractor shed, I resigned myself to sitting on the couch and trying to let the splitting headache pass. It rained all weekend, so I spent the hours watching sitcoms and listening to the gentle raindrops patter on the ground outside. Thunder grumbled softly in the distance and gave me some semblance of relaxation, despite the fact that my head felt like it would explode. The subdued light overhead and of the overcast skies outside was a comfort to me as well. There would be nor piercing light and no violent noise to disturb my senses. This was how I wanted to spend the weekend – moving as little as possible, popping pain medication, and trying to rest up enough to be able to get back into the gym before Monday.
Things did not go as planned, and Monday arrived all too quickly. I woke up around 10:00 am, and my headache had only slightly gone down. Knowing I did not have to be at work until 2:30, I rolled over to get a couple more hours of rest. Before long, noon arrived. Realizing I had to leave in the next twenty minutes in order to spend any amount of time in the gym before work, I packed my bag, dressed in my workout clothes, and then slammed a can of Red Bull, hoping to force myself to be more alert. I still felt a bit groggy after finishing it, so I took another Red Bull from the refrigerator, loaded up the car, and placed the can in the cup holder next to the driver’s seat.
My headache was finally quieting as I drove the scenic drive to the gym. The trees seemed especially lush that day and the skies were still overcast from the previous few days of rain. I listened to the Red Bull can vibrating its thin, tinny shell against the plastic of the cup holder, as I slowly tried to prepare my mind for the task ahead. I was still feeling somewhat tired, but determined. It would take every ounce of concentration I could muster to get through an hour lifting weights. I began focusing before I got out of the car.
After fifteen, minutes I arrived at the gym. It was a weird juxtaposition of opposites. Outside, there were palm trees that are so characteristic of the Gulf Coast. The covered walkway to the entrance must have been two stories high, giving one the sensation of entering a grand building as opposed to a warehouse. Inside, the weight room was dimly lit. Much of the paint was flaking off the walls. There seemed to be dust everywhere. It was probably not nearly as dank as I remember, but it was just the type of environment I needed to be in in order to get the best workout I was capable of getting. (My best results seem to come when my workouts feel as blue collar as possible.)
I arrived in the weight room wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants in an attempt to keep my muscles warm and prevent shoulder injury. Because of feeling unhealthy all weekend, I decided to go no higher than 245 pounds during this workout. I stretched out my shoulders and lay down on the bench for my warm-up set of 135 pounds. I easily put it up fifteen times. However, I began feeling weak after the first set, so I got up and had a drink of water. After having some water, I still felt less energetic than I thought I should, so I decided to keep the weight at 135.
I performed one rep and instantly felt my left arm start to give way. Since I knew that I had high blood pressure, and that it could lead to a stroke, I immediately pushed the weight up as high as I could and racked it. I sat up in a panic. I feared the worst.
I generally didn’t take my blood pressure meds until after I finished working out, because I didn’t want them to cause me to feel drowsy while lifting weights. Now I rifled through my bag for some, desperate to stave off the stroke. The first pill bottle I found was either Hydrochlorothiazide or Atenolol. I tried to open it, but instead of the lid coming off when I twisted the cap, the bottle only spun in my left palm. I was losing grip strength in my left hand! There was another club member on the weight bench next to me, so I asked him to open the bottle for me. I thought I was communicating in plain English, but my speech must have already begun slurring, because he verified what I was asking him. I nodded and he opened the bottle for me. I poured out a pill and shoved it into my mouth
As I swallowed the pill desperately, he asked whether I needed him to get the staff doctor. Again I nodded yes. He quickly enlisted two other members to hold me steady on the bench while he ran to get the doctor. One of the men holding me on the bench spoke casually to reassure me, but now I can’t recall a word he was saying. I just kept mentally trying to urge the doctor to come faster. After what seemed like an eternity, the first gentleman appeared in the doorway, followed by the doctor and the club manager.
They asked me a few questions. I couldn’t form words by now. They gave up trying to verify what was wrong and called 911. It seemed as though it took the ambulance thirty minutes to arrive. During this time, I was unable to speak, but I kept worrying that with every second that dragged by I was losing more brain function. I was sure that I’d end up a vegetable. Or worse, since I had never bothered to give my dad’s phone number to my roommate, I might die on the coast without anyone knowing a thing. I was also aware that I was losing control of my other bodily functions. I tried not to urinate on myself, clenching as best I could.
It seemed an eternity before the paramedics arrived. I felt people lift me off the bench and place me on the floor. The floor was made of concrete. It felt cool and soothing compared the stuffy, humid air of the weight room. The overhead door allowed in a gentle breeze. I felt less panicked now, as I knew medical help had finally arrived. A sense of tranquility washed over me. There was really nothing to do but wait and let the medical professionals take it from here. I even stopped trying to trying to hold in the urine, relaxed, and gave in.
Now I was completely unable to move. I lay there listening to the paramedics. The chatter from their radios would have made me smile with peace, had my voluntary muscles still worked. The men lifted me onto a stretcher and loaded me into the ambulance. One of them asked me to breathe. I tried to, but every muscle I could feel had begun seizing. He asked me to breathe a second time, but I couldn’t. Finally, he slammed the oxygen mask on my face. Though I could not comply to the simplest command, I felt so relieved to finally be receiving medical treatment. I relaxed and stared up at the shadowy ceiling. The paramedics were talking, and the voices of the unseen dispatchers mixed with the electronic sounds of static. These were the last things that I can remember before passing out.