May: Los Angeles

This post was supposed to be about our awesome babymoon to California,

but then I went and had a stroke.

To be clear, that’s not supposed to happen to people like me.  I’m 26, in good health, and have no family history of strokes; but on May 19th a piece of clotted blood dislodged from my heart and shot up into my brain.  What follows is my attempt to catalogue the whole series of events and examine what I’ve taken away from them.  Settle in folks, this is a long one.

Our babymoon was actually pretty awesome.  Jen and I both wanted one last big trip before baby Luke arrived, and the opportunity came up to see a live taping of The Ellen Show in LA.  Seeing Ellen live was a bucket list item for Jen, so we planned the entire vacation around it.  We spent two weeks exploring California’s cities and national parks (that’s right, at 27 weeks pregnant Jen wanted to go hiking), and ended in LA for our grand finale.  The morning of the show I went out to put something in our car, and that’s the first memory I have of any symptoms.

I started dropping things.  I dropped my keys trying to open the car door, then I dropped my wallet trying to pick up my keys.  On the way back in, I watched my hand simply let go of the water bottle I was carrying.  It didn’t register yet that anything was wrong: I thought I was just being clumsy.  I made a wisecrack about it to Jen when I got back in the lobby, but saw shock on her face instead of amusement.  Jen told me later that my words had come out unintelligibly slurred.  The right side of my face was limp.  I almost fell over walking on my right leg.  The shock on her face was my first inkling that something wasn’t right, but it was readily apparent to everyone else.

Jen immediately knew I was having a stroke.  She had an ambulance called right away and sat me down.  I don’t remember anything between then and when the ambulance showed up, but I vividly remember the ride to UCLA hospital.  The EMTs asked me a series of simple, common-knowledge questions while they worked on me, and that was when I started to grasp that something was seriously wrong.

“What day is it?”

That’s easy, I thought, it’s…

Nothing. Just fuzz where the answer should be.

“What city are you in?”

More fuzz.  I knew they were easy questions.  I knew I should know the answer.

“What’s the president’s name?”

It was just out of reach.  Every piece of information was just out of reach.  The horrible realization hit me that it might not be there at all anymore.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Green,” I slurred.  I wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but the EMT couldn’t call me on it.

“Okay, good.  Now what day is it?”

I started to get angry.  Was I going to die trying to answer stupid questions?  I heard Jen’s voice and latched onto it.  For some reason I thought she was getting the same quiz as me.  I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but by her tone she wasn’t doing much better than I was.  I wanted to be there for her.  Holy shit, I wanted to be there for my son!  Was I not going to meet him?  If I did live, was my mind going to be a shaken etch-a-sketch?

That’s thankfully not what happened, but I honestly don’t have a good reason why not.  The stroke left a mass of dead tissue in my brain the size of your pinky finger’s top segment.  Worse, it’s in what the doctors called the “high rent district”: the part of my brain that controls speech and movement.  By all accounts, my mind and body should have been devastated.  I should be in speech therapy and re-learning how to walk.  Instead, everything came flooding back.

This is unfortunately as close as we ever got to The Ellen Show

This is unfortunately as close as we ever got to The Ellen Show

By the time we reached the hospital I was lucid enough to insist that Jen go to The Ellen Show without me, but not lucid enough to realize how stupid that suggestion was.  At least I made her laugh.  By the time we reached a room I could hold a conversation.  That night I was walking around again under my own power.  I think the doctors were as confused as I was.  They checked over and over again for any sign of lost function—“smile, frown, lift your arms, lift your legs, pull my finger, list every animal you can think of, list words that start with B”—but as far as anyone could tell, I’d lost absolutely nothing.  Or, maybe said a better way, I’d gotten back absolutely everything.

That event—having my most basic abilities taken away and then restored—has thrown into sharp focus the things and the people I should care about.  I’ve realized (or maybe remembered) that the simple act of having a conversation, regardless of the topic, is a pleasure.  Am I being present and enjoying it?  Am I using the opportunity to say the things I want to say?  Is the other person getting anything out of it?  If not, then change it!  It’s a weird mix of gratitude and urgency that I’ve started to cultivate in every area of my life: a huge gain of appreciation for the Awesome Little Things, and a huge loss of patience for the Bullshit Little Things.  Are the things I spend time on filling me or draining me?  If there are parts of my life that I’m just phoning in, do they really need to be there?  It’s made me more engaged, more honest, and more willing to take risks.  Having the stroke was one of the worst, most terrifying experiences of my life, but because of it I’ve made positive changes that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

That's normally where I would end the story, but that's not at all where the story ends.

The doctors at UCLA spent the next week running every test they could think of to find the cause of my stroke.  It was while looking for a congenital heart defect that they stumbled onto the blood clot inside my heart.  It was positioned so that anything breaking off from it would shoot straight up into my brain.  This explained the stroke, but now there was no explanation for the clot.  My bloodwork was fine, my heartbeat was regular, no congenital heart defect... I was beginning to feel like an episode of House.  Regardless, the big danger was that the clot was still in there.   Just a small piece of it had caused my first stroke, and there was nothing to guarantee that more (or all) of it wouldn’t break off at any moment and cause another.  Also, since we didn’t know why it was there in the first place, there was no guarantee that more clots wouldn’t form.  I immediately started medication to dissolve it, but the doctors cautioned it could take a while.  There was nothing they could do except send me home to continue testing and hope no more broke off.  I would have to live 3 minutes away from irreparable brain damage for the foreseeable future.

I hid this fact from people.  I’d miraculously recovered from a stroke and gained a whole new outlook on life in the process!!! The looming possibility that I’d die anyway just didn’t fit that story, so I ignored it.  I was more than happy to talk about what happened in LA, but it was always as if the ordeal was over.  If I mentioned the clot at all, it was in vague or joking terms.  I felt like I was letting people down if I told them the truth.  Besides, how do you work “I might stroke out in front of you” into polite conversation?  I told myself I was staying positive, but underneath I was a pile of kindling doused in gasoline.

The match was a phone call about—of all things—my balls:

“Hi, Mr. Furia?  I’m calling to schedule the ultrasound for your scrotum.”

“Schedule the what?”

“For my what???”

“Your, um, your scrotum?”

“I’m sorry, I had a stroke.  That’s like heart and brain stuff.”

Papers furiously rustled on the other side of the line.  

“So nobody said anything about a… scrotum ultrasound?”

“No.  I think you might have the wrong guy.”

The lady flustered around a little more (I don’t think she was expecting to have to say the word “scrotum” so many times) before telling me she’d have to call me back.  I got a call back, but this time it was from the doctor herself.  She explained that the first call had indeed been for me.  In fact, they wanted to get scans of every part of my body.

They needed to check for cancer.

Cancer somewhere else in my body could have caused the clot in my heart.  It was a low probability, which is why no one had mentioned it before, but it was the one hypothesis that they hadn’t disproved yet.

I managed to keep up my happy face for a few more hours, trying to plan a meetup with my family as if nothing was wrong.  Jen, who was still processing things herself, wanted to stay in.

“Dammit, Jen!” I burst out, “I don’t know how many more times I get to see them!”

It’s the first time I’d acknowledged the situation for what it was, and it broke me.  I cried uncontrollably as Jen held me in our kitchen.  All the fear, anger, and worry that I’d been ignoring for weeks caught up to me with interest.  I felt like I was underwater the days between then and the ultrasound.  Everything felt murky and slow; oppressive and out of focus all at once.

The day before the tests, a friend invited me to a “night of healing” at our church.  Now I’ve always been churchy, but I’ve never been that churchy.  I knew I was in a bad place, though, and Jen encouraged me to go.

The entire event felt like it was designed specifically for me.  First, the worship leader opened with Psalm 51:10—“Create in me a pure heart, oh God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”—and talked about how people in the room might literally need a pure heart that night.  Next, another stroke survivor shared his story.  The short version was that he’d had four massive strokes in one day, leaving him unable to even swallow.  A group of friends began praying for him during recovery, and over the course of 48 hours every disability they prayed for disappeared.  Finally, a group of volunteers offered to pray for anyone who wanted healing.  I picked the closest volunteer to me and unloaded my story—my whole story—onto him.  Go figure, it turned out he was one of the friends that prayed for the stroke survivor who spoke.  He had also seen his brother miraculously come back from stage 4 brain cancer after being prayed for.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on in there,” he told me, pointing to my heart, “I’ve seen God handle it.”

He prayed, I bawled.

Afterwards, I sat in the atrium and shared my whole story with the friend who had invited me, including how I’d been coping (or failing to cope) with the unresolved parts.  He was a cancer survivor himself, and listened with empathy and understanding.  I felt so much less alone opening up to someone who had been there, and afterwards it was hard to understand how I’d ever believed the lie that sharing my fears and uncertainties would let people down.  I don’t know if any physical healing happened that night, but I definitely experienced emotional healing.

The next day’s ultrasound found no signs of cancer.  A few days after that, an MRI showed the clot in my heart to be completely dissolved, with no sign of new ones.  The doctors still haven’t found the cause of the original clot, but I can acknowledge that now with peace instead of dread.  My guess is that they never will—that I really am healed of whatever it was—but I don’t need that to be true in order to make the most of whatever portion of life I have left.  I’m continuing to cultivate that lifestyle of gratitude and urgency in everything I do, and I have Los Angeles to thank for that.