Saturday, November 07, 2015

The Big Event: The Stroke (10/11/2009)

Steven H. Cornelius
Music and Stroke
Posted on February 3, 2012

A young 57 years old, I was in apparently perfect health. Twenty-five years of actively practicing martial arts had kept my flexibility and coordination skills high. I went to the gym regularly and walked two to three miles daily. The Saturday fall afternoon had been lovely. I spent it in-line skating through the Newton suburbs with my dogs.

That night, I went to bed with an ache at the base of the right side of my skull behind the jaw. I took some aspirin, but gave it no more thought. I awoke around 3 a.m. needing to use the bathroom, but couldn’t sit up. I felt a relaxed disorientation, and decided I was experiencing some sort of sleep paralysis.

“Weird,” I thought, so I decided to wait a few moments and try again. Instead I fell back asleep. That happened a few more times. Around 5:30 a.m., I really had to go. So I decided to get up, whatever it took.

It wasn’t easy. Sitting up and swinging my legs to the floor took multiple attempts. My struggle awakened Sharan, my wife, who asked me if there was anything wrong. Standing up, I mumbled that I was fine, but that my leg was asleep. Then I lurched across the bedroom to the hallway door.

At that time we lived in a walk-up apartment. The bedroom was on the third floor; the bathroom was on the second.

My leg refused to wake up. So, hanging on the railing, I somehow negotiated the stairs and made it to the bathroom.

Sharan followed me down and asked me what was wrong. I still didn’t realize anything was wrong. It was clear, however, that I could barely walk and was having difficulty speaking.

I said I needed to sit in a chair. As I tried to walk, she stabilized my collapsing left side. “What’s wrong with your arm? It’s limp,” she said.

It was? I had no idea. Couldn’t feel it at all. Didn’t even know it was there.

The possibility that I was having a stroke still hadn’t occurred to me. My family has heart attacks, and I didn’t think I was having one of those.  Not to worry, I was just dizzy.

Sharan helped me into a living room chair and said she was going to call 911. That was something that I would never have thought of, much less been able to do. I just wanted to sleep.

By the time Sharan returned with street clothes I had slid out of chair and was mostly on the floor. She pulled me back up and tried to help me dress, without much success.

I recall the paramedics arriving, picking me up, putting me on a gurney, carrying me down the stairs, and then to the ambulance. I have a dim memory of the siren, then being carried into Newton Wellesley Hospital.

The next concrete event I remember is a bit embarrassing, but it may have saved my shrinking chances for achieving a substantial recovery. I heard the doctors ordering the attendants to give me an MRI.

Bad news for a claustrophobic.

Even so, I tried to cooperate. I figured if I closed my eyes and let go, I wouldn’t even know where I was.

That turned out to be a lousy strategy.

As I was being pushed inside, I peeked. Waves of terror rolled over me and I immediately began clawing my way out of the machine. Cursing the attendants, I struggled to sit up. I was going home, damn it.

I put up quite the struggle. Sharan tells me four attendants held me down as I waved my arms yelling, “I’m not going in there! Look I’m better! I’m better!”

And for the moment I was. The sudden improvement in speech and mobility caught the attention of the attending physicians. Along with my terror, my blood pressure had gone through the roof, high enough that the pressure seemed to be forcing oxygen-rich blood into to my nutrition-starved brain.

Since my elevated panic-induced blood pressure was having a positive effect, it was decided that my blood pressure would be kept artificially high until they could figure what was causing the stroke and mitigate its effect. Sharan remembers systolic readings in the 200 range.

A subsequent CT scan (the first of many over the coming days) showed a dissection of the corotid artery, the one that supplies the head and neck with oxygenated blood. By the time of the stroke, the artery had mostly healed, but a clot formed during the healing process had broken free and passed up into my brain. Where the artery passage narrowed, the clot had become lodged and cut off the flow of blood. Perhaps I had felt the upward moving clot before going to bed.

A lovely maroon dawn was breaking by the time I was put back in an ambulance to go downtown to Mass General. After that, my mind shut down.

I spent the next five days in Mass General’s intensive care unit. I have almost no recollection of the first three.

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