A Pedacito Of My Brother's Stroke
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
My brother was away at a work conference in New York when he woke up feeling sick. He’d gone out the night before and drank quite a bit, but not enough to explain a hangover like this.
He rolled out of the hotel bed, crawled to the bathroom, and threw up incessantly. Dazed, he crawled his way back to the bed only to find that he couldn’t stand up. He pulled the sheets and blankets off the bed and curled up on the floor.
Although his skin was clammy, he broke out in cold sweats. His teeth chattered. He hurled again. He managed to find his phone and text his friends from the night before. He typed “I’m sick, not hungover,” but when he tried to read the message back to himself before sending it, it made no sense. He couldn’t understand the words.
Regardless, he hit send. When he heard the knock at the door he was suddenly self-aware of his nakedness. Grabbing some compression shorts, he crawled towards the door where he let his friends in. They knew something was wrong.
He slept through the rest of the day, occasionally throwing up until it was time to hop on a flight back home to Chicago. Before my brother leaves anywhere, he runs through a checklist: phone, wallet, keys. He ran through the same checklist before leaving for the airport, and although all three of the items were right on the table right in front of him, he could only see two. His friend shifted the items and the missing one came into focus.
He made it to the airport with help from friends, although he doesn’t remember any of it. When the security guard asked for his ID, my brother was stumped. He took a guess and handed over his entire wallet. The guard shuffled through his cards, picked out his ID, and let him through.
Dazed, sweaty, and running late, he made it to the gate just in time; he boarded second to last. A wave of relief washed over. He was on his way home. He waited outside the Chicago airport for an Uber while praying please God… when it arrived and brought him home.
The next day, he went to the Minute Clinic. A nurse asked him what was wrong, but he was at a loss for words. He knew what to say, but he just couldn’t find the words to say it. He stumbled over himself, trying to explain. The nurse diagnosed him with dehydration, prescribed lots of water, and sent him home.
For the next two days, my brother drank lots of water and dazed in and out of sleep and reality. He wasn’t sure which was which. TV shows became memories, childhood vacations took place yesterday, and anime characters became real. If he stood up, his mental state got worse.
When my brother’s girlfriend called, it was his first attempt at a real conversation since the Minute Clinic two days earlier. She lived about an hour away and was just checking in, but only ten minutes into their conversation my brother repeated himself 3-4x, which blew his mind. He was completely oblivious and dumbfounded.
She drove down to his place and stayed the night. The next morning they went to the ER and the doctors slid his body into a big grey tube for an hour-long head scan. They played some relaxing, classical music so my brother was able to sleep.
“You’ve had two relatively severe strokes on the left side of your brain,” said the doctors. His girlfriend gasped. “Luca! Are you okay?!” My brother, more so in his right mind but still confused, asked the doctor what a stroke was. He remembered making fun of them.
“What happens is a blood clot gets into your brain and it cuts off blood flow to the brain. If the brain doesn’t get blood flow, it dies,” said the doctor.
Once a part of your brain dies, it doesn’t regenerate—or come back to life. It’s dead forever. But if you’re lucky and young when the stroke happens, the brain can make connections around the dead area, helping you function more or less normally again.
Also, if it happens on the outside of your brain as my brother’s did, you have a higher chance of recovery. Strokes that happen on the inside of your brain can “mess you up for life” in the words of my brother.
My brother was lucky, but his athleticism also helped his body recover; he was in peak physical condition when it all happened. He had just come off “cutting season” in preparation for the Minneapolis Open Jiu-Jitsu Tournament the week before. He’d been working out three hours a day and was only 12% body fat.
Young research doctors, about five to six different people, came to visit him at his bedside and ask a lot of questions. I mean how often is it that a 25-year-old boy, in peak physical condition, has not one but two strokes?
Don’t get me wrong, he definitely wasn’t himself right away. He had to work towards it. The doctor admitted him to the hospital and tested him every day, showing him the same pictures of animals and objects that he’d have to name correctly.
My brother knew what the objects were, he just didn’t have names for them. My mom showed him pictures of our family and friends and although he recognized the people, he had no names for them either. When he returned to work weeks later, he couldn’t remember the names of the people he worked with.
Apparently, the longer you know a person the more likely their name will stay in your mind after the shock of a stroke—for example, he remembered my name, my dad’s name, and my mom’s name.
He’s completely himself again—besides the slightest crooked smile, uneven hand placements when he runs, and hand twitches, all in the left-side.
It was all a shock to my brother; he went from athlete to stroke victim in a matter of days. Turns out that his heart is Swiss Cheese. He has three holes in it. The clots passed through the holes and into his brain. There was nothing he could’ve done to prevent it.
Looking back, the symptoms all made sense. He couldn’t see his phone, wallet, and keys at the same time because he lost half of his vision in his right eye. He could hardly speak because blood flow was blocked to the left side of his brain. He was in and out of sleep for days because his brain was trying to repair itself.
I can’t point the blame at any individual for not catching it sooner; the truth is, it was on all of us, myself included. Hell, I didn’t know what stroke symptoms were at the time.
Maybe if one of his friends, or the security guard, or the nurse, or his girlfriend, or another bystander—was aware of the symptoms of a stroke, he could’ve gotten help right when he needed it. Instead of suffering alone in his apartment while a part of his brain died.
My brother said that in the midst of it all, the crazy thing is that you feel so messed up that you don’t even know you’re messed up. We need to know the symptoms of a stroke so that we can look out for each other better.
The fact that my brother survived a period of five days with two strokes and no medical attention whatsoever is a miracle. I share my story with the hopes that you won’t need a personal story like this in order to learn the symptoms.
I hope that you, and I, are so aware that we will recognize the next stroke victim, help them get appropriate care as soon as possible, and equip them with the best chances of recovery.
Read more about Stroke Signs and Symptoms from the CDC.
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