All my life I dreamed of making the highlight reel on ESPN.
A star basketball player at high school where I scored more than 1,000 points, I was expected to be a standout player when I arrived at college.
But at the young age of 19, I had a catastrophic stroke. Against all odds, I came back from this lifethreatening event. We all have obstacles. Overcoming them always starts with the first step, by pushing fear and doubt aside. When I started to recover, I made up my mind to get back out on the basketball court.
My ordeal began when I was lifting weights in an offseason workout. I got a piercing headache, like I was stabbed in the head with a knife. Later I found out it was a blood vessel bursting in my brain.
My left arm and leg went numb, and a fellow freshman teammate helped steer me toward the athletic trainer’s room. I looked at my left leg, which felt dead. My toes were dragging on the ground. That was the most emotional moment of my experience.
I was rushed to hospital where I was stabilized. On the way, they had to cut off my tee shirt, which had my nickname on it, Mr. 1,000,. I took this as a symbol to leave the old me behind. I had no choice but to start over.
A brain scan at the hospital showed I had bleeding into my brain in the frontal lobe on the right side. What caused the bleeding turned out to be a congenital blood vessel malformation called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. This abnormal tangle of blood vessels, where the arteries directly feed into the veins, looks like a can of worms or bowl of spaghetti. This creates weak points in the vessels, which can lead to bleeding and, in my case, a stroke.
Doctors performed a procedure to reduce the risk of further bleeding of my AVM. They snaked a catheter the size of a small piece of spaghetti into my brain and injected a liquid, gluelike substance through it, causing the vessels to seal up. Ten days later, I was in rehab for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
Even though I had physical deficits and my left side was paralyzed, I had the goal of being back on the basketball court. I never doubted that.
After five weeks at rehab, I continued to do outpatient physical therapy. I was still having trouble walking and struggling with short-term memory loss when I returned to hospital for a seven-hour operation to remove the AVM and to prevent further hemorrhages.
Doctors didn’t have to go through the brain because the AVM was on the surface between the right and left hemispheres. The surgery went well. I went home in a few days.
There was nothing I did or didn’t do to cause my stroke, Harbaugh says. This was a congenital problem – blood vessels in my brain failed to develop normally. Often, doctors don’t know an AVM exists until the patient has seizures or headaches. The most common presenting symptom is bleeding in the brain.
Recent studies indicate more strokes are occurring at younger ages. Active young people, for example, football players or weightlifters whose necks may twist violently, are at risk for dissection of an artery, in which a blood clot forms, breaks off and blocks an artery in the brain.
Stroke is largely preventable, beatable and treatable. Some strokes are preventable by making lifestyle changes, for example, stopping smoking, getting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity regularly and eating a heart-healthy diet. High blood pressure and high blood sugar levels can be treated with diet, exercise and medication. Other strokes are hereditary and largely unpredictable. That’s when you have to focus on doing everything you can to recover and prevent a second one
I make sure to eat a heart healthy diet. I’m a whole-wheat pasta fan. I eat lots of fish, peanuts and olive oil and keep my fat intake down. I love salad and broccoli, and eat greens every day.
I lift weights, run on a treadmill, box, do agility drills and play golf, tennis and basketball. I get together with friends and shoots baskets to relieve any stress I may have.
I look at my stroke as a great gift. I have an opportunity to inspire others, to turn a negative into a positive. I don’t compare my situation to anyone else’s.
You can’t control what life brings, only how to play the cards you’ve been dealt. It takes hard work and dedication.
– Cory, 24