I Thought I Was Invincible. Then I Had A Stroke at 46.
What my wake-up call taught me.
By Sean Villafranca
I’m as average of a guy as you’ll meet. As a 46-year-old Asian-American man, I have a loving wife of 18 years, two sons and a dog. I have a great job as a Design Director for a prominent magazine’s website, which can be stressful at times, but manageable. Outside of work, I live a very suburban life in New Jersey, with both a barbecue grill and a meat smoker in my backyard. Like other middle-aged American men, my diet consists mostly of meat and potatoes. Fruits and vegetables, not so much. It’s not a complicated life, but it’s also not a healthy one.
One Tuesday last November was a strange day. I woke up, and as I headed to the bathroom to start my usual morning routine, I felt a numbness on my left arm, left side of my face and tongue. After brushing my teeth and running the shower to get the hot water going, I Googled my symptoms. As I feared, results such as, “Stroke, “Heart Attack” and “Call 911” appeared on my screen.
Since that sort of thing could never happen to *me,* I went about my morning routine and got into the shower. I washed my hair and as the shampoo was running down my face, I felt something odd: the numbness wasn’t going away.
I got dressed and heard my wife Yasmeen downstairs, yelling up to me, “I’m leaving for work now. See you guys later!” Should I tell her about my numbness? “Wait!” I yelled down to her. “After I drop Travis off at school, I’m going to drive myself to the ER…”
I told her that I was feeling numbness on my left side, and I should probably get it checked out. She quickly called her mom, a retired nurse, who concurred that I should get to the ER. The strange thing was that I wasn’t afraid at all. We’ll go to the ER, they’ll say it’s nothing, then I’ll go home and let my boss know that I’m taking a sick day to rest up.
After driving our son to school, we went to the ER at the nearest hospital where I told the woman at the door, “I have numbness in my left arm, face and tongue…” She immediately ushered me to a nurse who took my blood pressure. It was high: 188/105. Later in the day, it went up as high as 255/130.
The doctors had me take two tests: a CAT scan and an Echocardiogram. Before I knew it, the quickie visit to the ER turned into a 4-day stay. I had what they called a “mini-stroke.”
The doctors went on to explain that the CT scan showed that I previously had infarctions. Infarcts, as they call them, are like tiny strokes that occur in the brain, but are so tiny that the effects don’t readily appear. It was almost as if this current mini-stroke was inevitable.
Later that day, my sons, Travis (14) and Owen (11) came to visit me, along with my wife and parents. A month earlier, our family had another scare: my 82-year-old dad went to the ER, after suffering an extreme asthma attack. This time I was on the other side. Flashes of what my wife and sons’ lives would be without me passed through my mind, and things got more real for me. I couldn’t leave them behind.
That night, I posted on Facebook about what I had been through. To my surprise, by Friday morning, I had over 250 comments from people I hadn’t heard from in years sharing their stories and sending their prayers.
Less than a week after the stroke, I went back to work. I thought I’d be discharged and I’d go back to life as it was before. But I found that everything was slightly off-center. My usual routine was harder than usual. I’m used to being Mr. Reliable. And now, I know I’m not, at least not yet. It was a huge wake-up call for me. It made me see that I need to adjust to get proper rest, stick to a better diet and take each day as it comes.
You always count your blessings after something like this happens, but it’s something that my wife said to me after I came home that sticks with me the most.
“I can’t do this alone,” she said. “Please take better care of yourself. We need you to stick around.”
It’s a lot to swallow. We all have to take a moment every now and then to check in with ourselves. Be honest with yourself. Are you OK? Like, really OK? If something’s off, take a beat. Take the time to fix and heal. As they say: an ounce of prevention’s worth a pound of cure.