Updated: May 25
I was 31 years old and in seemingly perfect health. I had never experienced any major health issues (besides the knee surgery when I was 14). But one Tuesday in December, I woke up in the middle of the night, dripping sweat and with the worst headache of my life.
I thought I had food poisoning? I never had it before, so maybe that was it. I must have gone back and forth to the bathroom at least 10 times to throw up. I fell down twice, but still didn’t think too much of it. The entire night I could barely sleep, tossing and turning, still with a headache.
The next morning I didn’t go to work. It wasn’t a decision I had made, I just didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t call my office, I didn’t text, I didn’t send an email. At around 11am I looked at my phone, I had at least twenty missed calls and text messages from my colleagues. I didn’t respond to any of them. Then my phone rang again, a co-worker had shown up to my building and was on the phone. He came up to my door, and I was so incoherent I didn’t let him in, but we had a conversation through the door. I convinced him I was just sick, and I’d be fine. So, he left.
Several hours later, in the early evening, I started to feel even worse. I called my father and asked him to bring me Gatorade because I was so dehydrated. He came to my apartment 30 minutes later, and he instantly knew I was in bad shape. I looked awful, was complaining of a headache, and I wasn’t making sense.
He decided to take me to the ER. Once there, I sat in the waiting room for what felt like an eternity. At first, the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. But, after they performed a CT scan and an MRI, they determined I had suffered a major stroke. It was caused by a Vertebral Artery Dissection. An artery had torn in my neck, which caused a blood clot that eventually cut off blood from a part of my brain. I can’t even imagine the shock my family felt when the doctors told them the news. No one expects to hear that their 31 year old son, brother, and uncle has suffered a stroke.
The next two days were basically a blur for me, and my condition was worsening. Fluid starting building up in my head. I was moved to the neurosurgery ICU. By Friday I couldn’t count to 10, I hiccupped nonstop, and my headache was at its peak. At that point, doctors told my parents that I had a roughly 50-50 chance of survival. They needed to drill a hole in my head to relieve the mounting pressure. The procedure worked!
The next day, shockingly, I felt back to normal. Except for the blood pressure cuff, pulse monitor, catheter, IV in my right arm, IV in my left arm, IV in the center of my chest, circulation balloons on my legs, and oh, the tube in my skull, you would never know I had suffered a stroke.
Within days I was moved to a different unit, but would still spend another two full weeks in the hospital, in what can only be described as a surreal experience. Most of the other patients were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Although they might be struggling with their speech, or with basic tasks, or with pedaling the stationary bike in the gym, they always had encouraging words for me. I remember one of my roommates very well. A long retired advertising executive in his 80s, Burt loved to talk about Mad Men late into the night (which in his case was around 8pm). Or another roommate David, a World War II vet in his 90s. The two of us shared a 4 person room, because the nurses were concerned that my many visitors would overwhelm a 2 person room. My family showed up every day, and there was a constant rotation of my friends.
It’s a weird thing to think about, but most of my time in the hospital felt like summer camp. I was fed three meals a day, I had no work responsibilities, and each morning I was given a schedule of the day’s activities. But, instead of kickball, swim, and softball, I had physical, occupational, and speech therapy (none of which I felt I needed).
Within a few months of being released from the hospital, it was clear I had made a full recovery. I felt even healthier than I had before, although I was slightly shaken by the fact I could have died.
Nearly 4 years later, following a routine physical, I went to have my first ever stress test-echocardiogram. While the cardiologist was showing me the image of my heart, he opined “your aorta is quite enlarged” in a rather calm voice. Clearly I had no idea. A few days later, the MRI confirmed this news. I had an ascending aortic aneurysm, which is an abnormal bulge in the wall of the aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart to the body. Mine was about 50% larger than normal. Because I had no earlier chest MRI to compare it to, a cardiac surgeon advised me to have another MRI in 6 months.
I did not like the idea of waiting. So I saw an aorta specialist. He told me that I could be fine forever, but there was no way of knowing. My aorta could just tear or burst, with dire consequences. Rather than hold out for the worst-case scenario, we scheduled my open heart surgery for a few weeks later. I underwent a valve sparing aortic root replacement, and the damaged section of my aorta was replaced with a synthetic graft. At the time, only a handful of surgeons in America could perform this particular ‘valve sparing’ procedure, which kept me from being on blood thinners for the rest of my life. I only spent 6 days in the hospital, and less than a month recovering at home.
As with the stroke, doctors weren’t sure what caused the aneurysm. I have no lasting effects from either. I’m physically active, go to the gym, play sports, and have no real restrictions on my activity.
Both incidents taught me a few things. But most importantly, I was left in awe of my family and friends. My family dropped everything to be there for me. The level of concern and compassion they exhibited was remarkable, and I had never felt so loved in my life.
I was blown away by the level of care I received during both stays in the hospital. My doctors spent hours answering my endless questions. I can’t even comprehend the amount of pressure that doctors and nurses are under on a constant basis. A couple years after my surgery, I decided to get involved in the Young Professionals of the American Heart Association, which also encompasses the American Stroke Association, making it the perfect organization for me. It has allowed me to meet other young stroke and heart surgery survivors. It also has given me a platform to share my unique story and hopefully help others. This is just something that is a part of me now, and I can take these 2 terrible situations, and turn them into something truly positive.