It was a routine Tuesday morning flight from Nashville to Newark.
Flying Southwest Airlines, as I normally do these days, we pulled into Terminal A. I had 4 days of scheduled meetings ahead of me in the familiar environment of north Jersey. I reached up to grab my rollerbag from the overhead, strode down the jetway into the terminal, and (as is normal after a flight), headed right to the men’s room.
Now, we guys take certain things for granted, and one of those things is the ability to pull down one’s zipper with the dominant hand (I’m a rightie). But as I stood in that bathroom, I discovered, with great perplexity, that my right fingers simply would not work.
I couldn’t even unzip.
Confused thoughts filled my mind; and as I ordered a breakfast sandwich that I could not hold, and tried to make my fingers do things that they’ve always done but suddenly wouldn’t, I didn’t know what to do.
As it turns out, I had had a stroke. No warning, no other symptoms – just a set of 5 fingers that suddenly had no strength.
I’ve been in the healthcare field long enough to know some things about stroke symptoms – at least, in theory. And the thought occurred to me in that moment – could it be? But it was so weird, so isolated, so out-of-the-blue, that I couldn’t bring myself to believe I’d had a stroke. After all, I was aware of no known risk factors, and had no family history. So, being a typical male prone to tough-it-out denial, I hoped it was just some random thing that would wear off. Bad move.
I went on my way to my first appointment, glad that I wasn’t going to have to write anything on a whiteboard (THAT would have been quite embarrassing, I assure you). I could barely hold a pen between my fingers; although, oddly enough, my handshake was still OK. However, I did finally do something right, which was to tell some colleagues at the first stop what had happened.
Their response was not so ambivalent. You should get that checked – now! Even the security guard at that client site, who overheard my report, gave me the knit brow and urged me not to blow it off.
I called my wife and described the event to her. Same advice – don’t mess around with this. My denial was starting to waver – have I mentioned that I haven’t been an inpatient for over 30 years and don’t particularly relish the thought of being hospitalized? Plus, I had a busy schedule – this was a business trip, after all!! Finally, at a networking event that evening, two other colleagues encouraged me to go the nearby emergency room (Morristown Medical Center, which was just 10 minutes away) and get checked out.
That was the right move. Suddenly, my business trip turned into a hospital stay. Tests and scans revealed that I had, indeed, suffered a minor stroke.
I was given exceptional care at the hospital, in the midst of this rather scary and confusing episode. And, over the next 2-3 days, my fingers steadily returned to full strength. There were no side-effects, no after-effects – by Friday morning, I was typing away on my laptop and getting work done, itching to leave sick bay. And, upon returned home to Nashville, I plugged right into the Vanderbilt healthcare system here, where some really great professionals are doing all the follow-up monitoring. I also got to learn a wonderful new word (“cryptogenic” – you can guess from some basic etymology what the word means: “we don’t know why this happened”)! Turns out that a third of all first-time strokes are cryptogenic; so, the doctors here will continue to check me out.
I am blessed to say that I’m fully healthy and none the worse for wear – and, right now, I view this as an isolated incident that contains a wake-up call. I hesitated to even write about this event publicly; but upon further reflection, I don’t think the wake-up call is meant just for me. How many of us would react that same way I did at first? Frankly, I didn’t want to face up to an inconvenient truth. So consider this blog post a Public Service Announcement (and for all of those with whom I shared this episode privately – you no longer have to keep it hush-hush).
As I learned more about stroke, it was made clear to me that the right course is IMMEDIATE intervention. Here’s the takeaway for all of us, and I can put it no better than this phrase from our Department of Homeland Security:
Turns out strokes can be very sneaky. Let me encourage you to keep an eye out on yourself and others you know (including me) – if you ever see or experience stroke-y symptoms, say something. Several of my professional colleagues did me a huge favor by urging me to stop playing martyr and go to the ER – two of them even drove me over to the hospital right in the middle of the networking event (thanks again, Susan and Jessica!) Better to err on the side of caution – every minute counts when brain cells are threatened. Unzip your mouth and talk about what you’re seeing or experiencing.
Now, I don’t want you to worry – I am fully recovered and feeling great. However, if my experience can be a little warning bell in the back of your mind, then it’s well worth sharing it.
Don’t tough it out. Check it out.
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Zipper image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net