Those of you who read my “stroke” posts most likely picked up on the underlying theme of “denial,” which wove its way through all three narratives with the subtle nuance of an anaconda. With this in mind, I will cut to the chase and tell you that, despite my mounting alarm over the frequency of “diakaesis (my neurologist’s term for the tendency of a stroke victim’s brain to “replicate” a stroke in response to stress, sleep deprivation, illness, etc.), I was unable to acknowledge the real stroke I suffered until nearly a week had passed.
Indeed, the depth and scope of my denial was such that I cajoled a good friend to accompany me on a fly-fishing outing to Coon Valley even as my unhealed, torn, right carotid artery was actively throwing a steady stream of clots toward my already compromised parietal lobe.
Bob Rowley, former longtime national affairs editor at the Chicago Tribune and currently director of media relations at Northwestern University, has been one of my all-time favorite fishing buddies. He was an emerging fly fisherman when I first started fishing with him in 2008. But Bob quickly developed his skills because he already possessed the requisite qualities necessary to master the arcane art of fly fishing — wide-ranging curiosity, an explorer’s spirit and a deep reservoir of patience and persistence.
Bob is the most socially connected guy (not to mention the best networker) I know, but at his core he is a spiritual man. We would drive the five hours to and from southwestern Wisconsin’s trout-rich Driftless Area discussing topics in theology religion and ethics, while Bob would periodically take calls (when I was driving, of course) from his many friends and colleagues.
Back in 2011, Bob and I set up an expedition to scope out Bad Axe Creek, a productive trout stream in the heart of The Driftless. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to be actively “stroking” during this outing! But, as they say, “It was what it was.”
So, it came to pass that on a balmy, early July Saturday morning Bob knocked on my door, took one look at me and said, “You don’t look at all well, my friend.”
No surprises there. Unbeknownst to me, as I alluded to previously, some of the clots being thrown by my carotid artery were traveling upstream and blocking blood flow to my brain long enough to do damage before finally dissolving.
” Oh,I’m fine!” I insisted.
Suzanne, who had gotten up with me, begged to differ, offering Bob an alternative diagnosis. “We think he had a stroke,” she opined, a tinge of alarm in her voice. “It probably would not be a good idea for you guys to make the trip at this time.”
“No problem, we could easily reschedule,”Bob quickly replied, struggling mightily to affect a look of casual indifference. He followed up immediately with, “Do we need to take you to the hospital?
We went around and around like that for awhile, but, needless to say, I was having none of it. “If you want to take a rain check that would be fine with me,” I said to Bob, “but I’m going to go up there one way or the other.”
Wow, what a jerk I was! Basically, I was threatening both Bob and my wife that, a): I could travel to the far corner of Southwest Wisconsin in the company of someone who could at least keep an eye on me; or b): I could just go my own foolish self.
Given these stark options, and reinforced by Suzanne’s confirmation that I was stubborn in a particularly bullheaded manner, Bob really had no choice but to proceed with the trip as planned. “Are you sure that you’re okay?” Bob asked, as I walked unsteadily to his car.
Enroute to The Driftless, I gave Bob the whole spiel about diakaesis and reassured him that my current “stroke-like” symptoms, which were replicating a severely impaired gait with remarkable accuracy, would probably dissipate before we returned home.
A particular kind of stroke
Even today, more than four years removed, I think back to that Saturday and wonder, “What the hell could I have been thinking?” I insisted to Bob that I was totally hunky-dory; in fact, I was actually in day three of a very particular kind of stroke. (They come in all shapes and sizes.)
Let’s try this analogy: Picture a bag of marbles with a tear at the bottom roughly the same diameter as a marble. Lift the bag and one or two marbles might squeeze through, but the remaining marbles will bunch together, forming a natural barrier — that is, until the aggregate weight of the marbles slowly forces the tear to widen, at which point one or two more marbles likely will slip through.
Needless to say, a rupture (or in my case, a tear) is not conducive to a stable environment. It was just a matter of time before I would, metaphorically and figuratively speaking, lose all my marbles.
My first warning of the looming Big Stroke was the momentary blackout I experienced the previous week while driving a rent-a-car from the Charleston, S.C., airport to Savannah, Georgia, to attend middle-son Christopher’s graduation from the Savannah College of Art & Design (popularly known as “SCAD”). Just as back on Easter Sunday in 2010, my “out-to-lunch” moment caught the attention of my passengers, in this case, Suzanne, and sons Brendan and Kevin. But this time I had my “moment” while doing 60 on S.R. 17 outside Sea Breeze, South Carolina.. I remember wondering why I seemed to be driving up a gently ascending scree slope as opposed to, oh, say, pavement. Instinctively, I turned gently toward the right, and eased back into the driving lanes.”You went off the road!” one of my sons exclaimed.
Given that I was now the Denial King, it should come as no surprise that I convinced both my family and myself that there was no cause to do anything but drive into Savannah and celebrate Christopher’s graduation. Please refer to “My Stroke (Part III for a photo of me with my newly graduated son.
Mercifully (I guess), the big stroke held off until we arrived at Charleston Airport. Brendan, who was driving,, pulled up to the Avis check-in kiosk about forty five minutes ahead of our flight. Again, just as back on Easter Sunday in Evanston, I attempted to get out of the car and my left leg simply refused to cooperate. But we were running against the clock and I was not going to let an immobile leg jeopardize my family’s chances of making our flight back to Chicago! My sons finally helped me out of the car, at which point I promptly fell down.
Somebody, either from Avis or from the airport,showed up with a wheelchair, and I was whisked all the way to the walk-through X-ray scanner. All I had to do at that point was get out of the chair and walk through the scanner, a journey of about four steps. Alas, I couldn’t get out of the chair (not for want of trying!), so I had to undergo the body search.
I can’t even recall if the procedure was performed by a man or a woman. What I vividly remember is peeking around the “privacy” curtain to observe my traveling companions. Our flight was scheduled to depart in under twenty minutes; at that point,passengers probably were boarding the plane. All three — Suzanne, Brendan and Kevin — looked utterly dejected, which I assumed was because they likely would miss the flight, That they might have been equally, if not more, concerned about my well -being never crossed my mind, which begs the question: Where was my head at?
Remarkably, we made our flight. Of course my body search revealed nothing incriminating, so TSA handed me over to one of the airport’s volunteer wheelchair pushers, who briskly traversed the mile and a half or so (at least, it seemed like it!) from the the security checkpoint to the boarding gate. At that point, I made a seemingly miraculous “recovery” by getting out of my wheelchair, and walking, albeit unsteadily, the length of the boarding apron, onto the plane, and to my seat. How was this possible?
Quite simply, it’s testimony to the ability of the undamaged neurons in my brain to quickly forge new neural pathways and attempt to pick up the load and cover for the neurons destroyed by whatever clot, (or clots) robbed them of vital oxygen.
I had been “lucky” (if that’s the word to use) that the clot (or clots) broke up before destroying progressively larger regions of my poor, beleaguered brain. However, these incremental losses of irreplaceable brain cells add up over time, and given the sudden paralysis that struck my left leg upon arrival at the airport, my best course of action would have been to head for the nearest emergency room.
But, alas, by deftly combining denial and monumentally misplaced priorities, I was able to board our scheduled flight to Midway Airport, insist on schlepping our luggage to a CTA Orange Line train (to save money), and then, upon arrival in Evanston, schlepping our luggage and all, six blocks to our house.
In my next posting, I will pick up where I left off with Bob Rowley. as well as attempt to answer the question: How severe does a stroke have to be before someone finally decides to friggin’ do something about it