KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
The year 2013 was an important year in my life. I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany and on the sixth year of my enlistment in the Air Force. My tour was just about up and I had an assignment notification to Camp Zama, Japan. At the time my girlfriend and I were in the middle of a summer vacation in southern Germany and Austria before I had to pack up and leave-- I was on top of the world.
And on June 28, 2013, at the age of 26, I had a stroke.
I have a vivid recollection of the day I had the stroke. We were camping in Bavaria, the southern region of Germany, and we left early in the morning for Austria to go canyoning with a guide. Canyoning, a European extreme sport, is where intrepid hikers start at the top of a mountain rather than the bottom, and work their way down through a canyon that’s been carved through by glacial waters.
We had our briefing, changed into our climbing gear and took a van to the top of the mountain. The Austrian guide gave us our final briefing and was starting to show us how to repel down the bridge that we were dropped off on. As he was describing the do’s and don’ts of the decent, I did a little stretching to loosen up. Then my stroke began.
My neck stretch must have done something to my cardiovascular system because the horizon started to swing and sway, as if I was spinning around in circles, on a boat, in a hurricane. My eyes darted around uncontrollably and my fingers went numb. I tried to ‘man up’ and keep listening to the safety briefing but I lost my balance, fell forward and laid there in the middle of the bridge we were set to rappel down. I tried to communicate my extreme confusion but my entire body became paralyzed and I couldn’t even form words.
The guide who thought I was scared said to just drink water, but my girlfriend finally convinced him to call the van to take me back to civilization.
A passerby offered to take me down and meet up with the van, and I thanked him by vomiting everywhere in his car. The kind Austrian seemed happy to help though and waved goodbye as I was put into the van and taken back to basecamp.
My stroke wasn’t caused by a preventable illness. I was a healthy twenty-something male with low cholesterol who took joy in long runs and cardio exercises. Because of my stretching, I had an Ischemic Stroke in my left vertebral artery. A clot formed at the base of my neck and subsequently starved the left side of my Cerebellum, the smaller section of the brain that controls all of your motor functions.
Later, I learned Ischemic Strokes account for approximately 83% of all strokes. They’re caused by an obstruction of an artery leading to or in the brain, preventing oxygenated blood from reaching parts of the brain the artery feeds.
Back at basecamp, I was taken to a local clinic and the doctor checked me out. He touched the back side of my neck and said “defect” in German. There was a nurse who spoke some English, so she told me they called the ambulance to transport me to Innsbruck, Austria. Luckily, Innsbruck University Hospital was the closest major hospital in the area and was regionally known for its stroke specialties.
I threw up a few more times in the ambulance and in the MRI scan machine in Innsbruck. For the next two weeks I was hospitalized and hooked up to blood thinning agents. During that time, my parents took emergency leave to visit and my squadron leadership also came to visit on the weekends and helped me learn to walk and talk again.
Two weeks after the stroke, I was transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a regional U.S. military hospital in Germany. A U.S. Army neurologist reviewed my case and had me get completely rescanned. After, he came back and said I’m lucky to be alive-- only because of my young age was I able to survive such an ordeal.
Within a week I was discharged from LRMC and walking around without falling down too much. Two weeks later I was back at work.
Having a stroke at age 26 put a halt on a lot of things in my life. I went back to work but my change of station to Japan was canceled and I started on a yearlong Physical Evaluation Board and Medical Evaluation Board to track my recovery progress to judge if enough treatment was offered to reason a medical separation.
Soon after I began the recovery process, I was walking and talking. I regained mobility quickly. I thought a spin bike would help propel my recovery to the next level, so I spent a few months going to the morning spin class mastering how to spin a stationary bike without falling over. After somewhat mastering that, I graduated myself to a real bike and continued my recovery on the road. I crashed a few times, but nothing in life is supposed to be easy.
When I started recovery, I didn’t know what I’d be able to accomplish again. I started off being able to only walk for a few seconds like a newborn deer, but with enough effort and determination I was able to walk up and down hallways and staircases without holding the guardrail. Its hard work trying to get mobility back but I focus on how good it is to be alive and well. I look at what’s ahead and embrace the challenge. The uncertainty pushed me. I’m here, but not where I want to be yet. The uncertainty of where I will end up is exciting. It’s a funny thing to be uncertain.
We all have different ways of coping and recovering. For me, the most liberating thing is being able to hop onto a road bike and cycle 80-plus miles. It wasn’t long ago that I could barely walk, but effort pays out in dividends.
It seems trivial, but that first night when I was all by myself in the Innsbruck hospital, I thought about all of the random and crazy things that happened on what was supposed to be a perfect day and said “good times” before going to sleep. That phrase has had an impact on how I view recovery. “Good times” is past tense so it was like I was saying the good times are over. I’ve worked so hard to push forward from retardation and depression to better times, so I want to push to live life in future tense. Happiness is everywhere, but sometimes only in little bits of progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, the epigram says. I’ll focus on that.
I attended the Transition Assistance Program class in case I wasn’t able to continue service, then spent weeks extending my tour until the board determined I could stay in, get an assignment and PCS date. I qualified for the Developmental Special Duty program so I was directed to Keesler as a technical school instructor. I’m coded to never be able to deploy again or be stationed overseas, and I have to go through another MEB every year to continue my recovery analysis.
Now, even though that sounded like a lot of doom and gloom, some good did come out of this ordeal; a few months ago I was accepted to the Air Force Cycling Team! It’s difficult to imagine I could’ve achieved a milestone like that in my life before my stroke. Maybe I would never have taken up a hobby like cycling and turned it into not only a way to recover, but also a way to flourish.
In 2013 I had a stroke and everyone around me figured I was just being a weirdo. If no one had thought I needed help, I wouldn’t be here today. Understanding and recognizing the signs of stroke are important. Luckily, there’s a simple acronym that has been adopted globally to help people identify the signs of a stroke and act as quickly as possible.
F – Face drooping: If you suspect someone is having a stroke, ask them to smile. Is one side of their face drooping or uneven? Is it numb?
A – Arm Weakness: Is one arm numb or unable to move? Can the person hold their arms up?
S – Speech Difficulty: Ask the person to say a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.” Are they slurring their words or having trouble getting full sentences out?
T – Time to call an ambulance: If someone is experiencing these symptoms, call an ambulance as soon as possible. Acting quickly will save their life.