A year ago tonight, I had a stroke.
Just writing the phrase is jarring. Because folks like me - relatively young (okay, -ish), healthy, active - don't have strokes of any size, or anything life-threatening or life-altering. At least in the ideal world we don't. Except, in this case, I apparently did. Here's what happened:
I was barbecuing dinner for the fam just after 7 p.m. I had just tweeted from my iPad and was getting back to the very serious business of burning meat to a crisp. As I flipped the chicken and idly wondered about the dangers of either overcooking or undercooking fowl, I suddenly felt faint. Now, I think we've all had moments where we get light-headed. Perhaps we overdid it in the heat. Or didn't eat enough that day. Or sleep enough the night before.
I had taken a fairly intense bike ride that afternoon, and in that blink of an eye as I started to waver I figured I might have simply pushed a little too hard. But as I started my slow-motion descent to the ground, I realized that this one felt, um, different. I reached out to the grill to steady myself - apparently a bad idea when flames are leaping up from beneath. Somehow I avoided being burned as I seemingly rode an elevator down to the deck, twisting to the right as I tried and failed to keep myself vertical. I ended up curled around the BBQ as my wife, who had been working inside, saw me fall and rushed outside.
I still thought I had simply fainted, so I tried to get up. And couldn't. The more I tried to force myself off the deck, the weirder it felt. I seemed to be sinking. Again and again. To the right. My wife called my name. Asked me questions. Talked to me. I could hear her clearly, but I couldn't answer. Not coherently, anyway. Couldn't properly pronounce my name. Couldn't say my age. Couldn't say her name. Couldn't tell her her relationship to me.
My 'Ruh Roh' moment
The crazy thing was that I knew all of these facts. Inside my head, I was screaming the correct answers, but they simply wouldn't come out of my mouth. I could sort of say "yes", "no", "okay" and a few other, typically incorrect and terse responses. But they had nothing to do with the voice inside my head that was now seemingly spinning uselelessly, because the inside and outside voices were completely disconnected.
I did notice her watch, though. 7:08 p.m. That was all I could do: Remember the time. Stupid brain.
I couldn't control the right side of my body. My right arm was curled in, and my leg just lay in front of me. I tried to move them, and couldn't. The strange thing is I was completely aware of what was going on, as if I was watching it all in some incredibly detail-rich, super-high-def, slow-motion movie. I knew what this was, and knew consciously that it was really not good. As much as I panicked for myself, I panicked even more as I watched and heard my wife in front of me and couldn't do a damn thing to control what was happening. Couldn't just shake it off, get back up and return to normal. I've been in car and bike accidents before, but never had I felt more out of control than I did then. Falling down the rabbit hole backwards, looking up and seeing daylight get smaller and smaller? That was me.
Debbie had our son call 911 and wait out front for the ambulance. I remember hearing the siren approach after almost no time at all. I remember Jordan wore a dark uniform, and Michael was a district supervisor in a white, incredibly well-ironed shirt. They carefully hauled me off the deck and into a nearby chair. My leg dangled uselessly below me - I couldn't feel it, but I could feel its weight. They connected me up to telemetry and asked me a million questions. I wanted to answer them all perfectly, but couldn't.
My blessed little existence seemed to be slipping away. Fear is an understatement as my mind raced through what might come next, and what I'd likely lose in the process. Words are my life. They flow from my head, through my fingers and into a keyboard, and I bounce them back and forth on radio and television. I could feel my very writer's soul slipping away, and I wondered what I'd do if I couldn't get it back.
I learned a whole lot of things as we descended more deeply into a journey none of us in my family ever asked for:
- I learned what it's like to be on the inside of an ambulance while you slice through traffic - note to motorists: please get out of the way, because you never know when it'll be you who needs the courtesy.
- I learned what it's like to bypass the lineup in the ER and go straight in - stroke protocol means everything happens Right Now.
- I learned what it's like to be at the total mercy of others - I couldn't even move myself from one stretcher to another as I headed into the CT room. My right side was dead weight as I silently cursed what my brain was doing to the rest of me and my family.
- I learned what it's like to be inside a CT machine. For what it's worth, it isn't as much fun as it looks on TV. The spinning machinery reminded me of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie where the cyborgs have to spin their eyes around just so before they either speak to you or open fire. Every time the thing stopped spinning, I tried to visualize what it was seeing as it peered into my head. The next day, my time deep inside an MRI machine made me glad I wasn't claustrophobic. Still, I worried my still-panicked breathing would throw the imagery off, and tried to match my breaths to the pulsing sets of magnetic energy. I hear those things are so powerful that they can pick up a bulldozer. I did not test that theory.
- I learned that MRI machines make some really neat sounds, even at rest. Sort of like the beat to an electronic dance music DJ's latest tune. And when they stick you inside and flip everything on, the sets of tones are straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I held onto wonky/amusing thoughts like this the entire time, figuring humour was as effective a defense/coping mechanism as anything else.
- I learned what it's like to skip from one piece of a seemingly never-ending assessment to another, where different members of the neurology team would share different snippets of information with me, and I'd do my best to a) answer their questions as best I could, out of fear of getting something wrong, b) ask my own questions along the way, c) absorb their responses and try to make sense of it all, and d) not let my rollercoaster emotions get in the way of figuring out what the hell was going on so I could work the problem and somehow get back to a semblance of the life I had before I fired up the BBQ.
- I learned what it's like to be surrounded by the most knowledgable and caring medical professionals on the planet. I learned how lame "thank you" feels when their rapid-fire decisions were the only things keeping a bad situation from getting even worse, the only hope I had of getting back to where I was.
- I learned what it's like to have friends. Not Facebook friends. Not acquaintances. Not talk-about-the-weather friends you wave to from afar at the supermarket. I'm talking about friends who dropped everything to come running to the hospital just to be there. Who picked our kids up, brought them home, and drove them wherever they needed, whenever that was. Who brought food to the house to ensure no one was hungry. Who brought Tim Hortons coffee and snacks to the hospital so my wife could have a quiet chat in a quiet hallway. Who ran over in the middle of the night and sat with her even though they had already been on call at the hospital for days, and who dove into my case and guided the medical team. Who have become our extended family since the day we first moved here. Whose insanely intense levels of generosity made me cry more than once. Because I'm not supposed to be on the receiving end of any of this. Because I'd rather be the one running and dropping off and picking up. But couldn't this time.
- I learned what it's like to have kids who have inherited my wife's sense of grace under immense pressure and her balanced approach to life. Who called the ambulance, calmly explained every last detail and directed them into our cul-de-sac. Who didn't lose it as they followed Debbie's orders to keep everything moving ahead as it should. Who waved and smiled as I was wheeled between countless scans, tests, and consults at the hospital. Who somehow kept their own fears about what was happening to their dad under wraps as the event played itself out.
- I learned what it's like to have a wife who managed to push past her own unimaginable terror as she deftly controlled every second from the moment I first went down. Who kept me focused every minute in the hospital. Who endeared herself to everyone on staff with her kindness despite what she was going through. Who has lost unimaginable amounts of sleep since this all started, ensuring I lack for nothing. Who magically manages to find new ways to make me love her more with each passing day.
- I learned what it's like to unplug. I ended up blowing deadlines, missing interviews, and not answering emails. I dropped off the face of the journalistic planet as I pulled in and focused on the one thing we all need above all else: health. My BlackBerry stayed off. I couldn't even fathom spending any screen time. Because, in the overall scheme of things, none of that mattered then. Not to me, anyway. The world would continue to spin on its own without me. I could wait a while before jumping back on the merry go round. Assuming I'd ever be able to jump.
- I learned what it's like to be thankful for not losing who I was, and am. Despite my whole need-to-unplug thing, at one point I felt the need to email a few critical folks - editors, producers, etc. - because not only did they need to know where I was at this week, but I also needed to know that I could still string words together on a page. Okay, screen. My wife let me send one email the following morning. I learned I could still thumb type, and the words still flowed. My heart raced and the monitor alarms went off. I was sweating. All from sending one email. But the voices inside my head were still there, still working as they always had. Satisfied, I clicked Send, powered the BlackBerry off and handed it back to my wife.
They kicked me out after 26 hours and told me to chill out for a few weeks and give my brain a chance to rest. But beyond that, they said I was pretty much ok, as the stroke was relatively small, and they were able to treat me well within established timelines. I clearly dodged a bullet.
Despite some lingering issues with balance - minor and manageable - I'm not any more brain damaged than I was before all of this happened (and, yes, that's meant to be funny. I can still do funny.) Thanks to countless tests, consultations and analysis by more medical professionals than you can shake a stick at, we learned in fairly solid detail what had happened to me:
I had been out on my bike earlier in the day, exploring the agricultural hinterlands northwest of the city. At one point, I turned onto a road and soon came upon a roadblock. I initiated a u-turn to head back, and flipped my head around to keep from getting smacked by an errant motorist. My maneuver apparently caused my left carotid artery to tear. (I know, who knew?)
Just after I made the turn, I pulled over to the side of the road to check my BlackBerry and ping my wife. The day was hot, I was annoyed because the closed road now meant a significant detour to get home, and I suddenly had far less time to get home than I thought I had. My head started to pound right then, and it only got worse as I got back on the bike and continued on my way. I tried to sleep it off when I got home, and took some Advil to knock it back, but by the time I was cooking at the BBQ, the injury threw a clot into my brain and touched off my - and my family's - adventure.
My docs called it a "freak" event, as I exhibited none of the risk factors usually associated with this kind of thing. I was the last person you'd expect to collapse from a clot in his brain. But that's the thing: there are no absolutes in any of this. No guarantees. And the universe very nicely served up a stark lesson in just how precious life is.
I promise it's a lesson that's already reshaping my life, and the lives of my immediate family.
I feel a responsibility to document what happened, largely because there's got to be some greater good here. I was locked in, and was unbelievably lucky to come back. Which makes me think there must be some reason I wasn't just left on the other side.
So I've written a book, And God Snapped His Fingers, and it focuses less on what happened to me and more on the ways we all can - and need to - lead better lives. It's written in chunkable, easily-consumable form - For Dummies or Chicken Soup books come to mind as structural precedents - and in my typical fashion, I'm spending way too much time tweaking it before I can call it done.
Next step: Find a publisher and bring this thing to life. Suggestions welcome.
I'll also share more on the blog about this journey we never asked to take, so watch for more on that. I'll talk about why I waited till now to out myself, what it felt like to get back in front of my keyboard, back on-air and back on-camera. I'll cover my never-ending worries about returning to the crazy tech journalist that I had always been, and all that other fun work and life stuff. But these are all conversations for another day, as I've probably written more than enough on this today.
For now, I'm thankfully still here, still very much myself, still able to drive my life, and still surrounded by the best support imaginable. I can't ask for much more than that. Call me blessed.
Your turn: Tell me what you want to know.
Related blog entries:
- When even "thank you" seems lame
- More stroke stuff...
- Coming up on Canada AM (lookahead to February 2015 interview)
- Winding down the day that was (includes like to Canada AM/Heart/Stroke Month segment)
NewsTalk 1010 Toronto, Adrienne Batra, August 08, 2014
CHED 630 Edmonton, Dan Tencer, August 11, 2014
The London Free Press, August 20, 2014
Stroke survivor shares his story
Byline: Dan Brown
Download PDF version here
CBC Ontario Morning, Susan McReynolds, August 21, 2014
NewsTalk1010 Toronto, John Moore, August 22, 2014
CJAD 800 Montreal, Barry Morgan, August 22, 2014
CJOB 800 Winnipeg, Dahlia Kurtz, August 26, 2014
Soundcloud audio link here
I'll add content here, http://archive.org/bookmarks/carmilevy, as I figure out how that part of Archive.org works.
Feel free to check back periodically - or subscribe to the RSS feed - for the latest content as it goes live.