Talk about coincidences. Last night I learned that Bret Michaels had a "warning stroke" and has been diagnosed with a patent foramen ovale (PFO, a hole in his heart). What's the coincidence, you ask? At the same time I read about this, I was drafting a post about my stroke, the result of an atrial septal defect (ASD, similar to PFO), which happened 20 years ago this month. (I'm afraid that where's the coincidences end; no "Talk Dirty to Me," no screaming groupies, no Rock of Love for me. At least not yet.)

May 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of my stroke. Appropriately enough, my mother had to remind me of this milestone during a Skype call a couple weeks ago, since it happened on Mother's Day, 1990, which was also the day before final exams at the end of my freshman year in college.

I was lying in bed that morning when all of a sudden I went into spasm. After what seemed like 20 seconds of the lousiest acid trip ever (I'm kidding—it was more like 15 seconds), the planets stopped played ping pong with my head and I realized that I couldn't move anything on the right side of my body. (Since I'm right-handed, my left side enjoyed a little bit of schadenfreude—until it realized who had to wipe for the next six months.)

My roommate helped me out of bed and drove me to the emergency room, where the Marquise de Sade herself took it upon herself to assume that I had overdosed on drugs just to hurt my mother on her special day, and treated me accordingly. While she let me express the full array of bodily fluids on myself (and catheterized me while fully conscious—not cool, so not cool), control over my right side gradually returned, and my roommate drove me back to school. (My roommate was a saint, and I did not deserve his kindness, to put it mildly. But that's a story for another day.)

After hearing "dude" pronounced 179 different ways by my fellow scholars in the dorm, I went about getting dressed, and soon I noticed my right side getting sluggish again, gradually this time rather than suddenly. (Apparently the first attack was a mini-stroke or TIA.) A couple friends walked me up and down the hall, thinking that would help me maintain motor control (well, it works with severe inebriation—go with what you know, I guess), but soon my right side went totally limp again. This time an ambulance was called, and 127 dudes later, I was on my way back to the hospital, unable to move my right side again, and also barely able to speak or even put words together in my mind.

After a week in the hospital undergoing tests (including a medieval torture device called an MRI that bore as much resemblance to a modern MRI as a Commodore 64 does to an iPad), my parents took my home for the summer. Speech and language came back pretty quickly (though my readers may disagree on the latter), and throughout the summer, motor function began to return, as Cole Porter would say, from major to minor. I was "walking" after a week, which is to say that my right leg had strengthened to the point where it could function as a crutch (with the sole advantage over a wooden crutch being that I couldn't lose it).

After regular physical therapy—and falling in love with my physical therapist, naturally—and hundreds of laps around an outside walking track with my father, control over my arm and leg returned, followed later in the summer by hand and foot, then fingers and toes. (My ASD, discovered in the middle of the summer, was repaired that August, the old-fashioned way, with the "flesh zipper" to show for it. Now I hear they can do it with an iPhone—"there's an app for that"—in the clinic drive-through. Figures.)

I was able to return to school in the fall; intense feelings of self-consciousness managed to wipe out any semblance of a limp after a week. Writing was still very difficult; legibility didn't return, even minimally, until the end of the term (and my current students would argue that it never came back). But I got through it, and by the next spring I was able to get back in the gym (though not in full force until the following fall, when in a couple months I was able to put back the muscle I had lost over the year of recovery, and more).

And here I am, twenty years on. Though I made a nearly full recovery, there are still slight asymmetries and delayed motor responses that I doubt anyone else would notice unless I pointed them out, but of which I am still mindful. I don't dwell on it, but not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of it.

People ask if the stroke changed me, if I'm a different person because of it. I'm afraid I don't know; looking back, I don't perceive any radical change in personality or disposition, but I'm probably not the best person to ask, especially now that I've lived more years since the stroke than before it. (I have enough trouble remembering what life was like before kids or before marriage, much less twenty years ago!)

If I learned anything from it, I learned not to take anything for granted. Having to re-learn how to walk, brush my teeth, and hold a pencil have a way of grounding a person. As with any misfortune, you learn who truly loves you, and that must never be taken for granted. And I learned that strokes can happen to anybody, regardless of gender, race, ethnicityor age. I was lucky, extremely lucky, because I'm here and I'm able to tell people about it.

If you have stories of stroke, if you experienced it yourself or through a loved one, please feel free to share in the comments.

And I ask everybody who reads this, please, to visit one of more of the following websites to learn more about the warning signs and other information about stroke—needless to say, the early the onset of stroke is detected, the greater the chances of more thorough recovery.

National Stroke Association 

American Stroke Association

MayoClinic.com

WebMD

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