While driving Toby Miller felt his right arm weaken and slide off the steering wheel. He then became dizzy and pulled to the side of the road. Miller doesn’t remember how he got to the hospital. He had a stroke. At the time he was 36.
“I just was in a fog,” Miller, now 51, said. He also displayed another sign of stroke, although he didn’t know, the right side of his face drooped. “I didn’t really quite understand what was going on, how I was doing. I was trying to answer the questions. … When they told me I had a stroke, I didn’t believe them.”
According to Jerry Smartt, owner of Smartt Neurology, Black men are twice as likely to have strokes and 60% more likely to die when they occur than white men. There is no medical consensus why African Americans are more vulnerable to stroke, but theories include genetics, lifestyle choices and stress. Smartt called risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure “silent killers” because they can stay unnoticed until it’s too late. Therefore, it’s imperative to make healthy choices such as limiting fatty foods and exercising frequently to lower the risk of stroke.
In addition to possibly being fatal, Smartt said stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States. It can weaken muscles, cause partial blindness and impact communication skills. After having two strokes within a year, Miller developed a blind spot in his right eye and a weakened ability to swallow. Instead of swallowing being an involuntary function, now Miller must make a mental and physical effort to eat and drink.
Miller also lost verbal and written communication skills after his strokes. Initially, even a phrase as simple as “the cat sat on the mat,” was difficult for Miller to comprehend. He spent years in therapy developing new ways to think in order relearn how to speak and read.
“It’s a different way of managing information,” Miller said. “People with stroke will probably understand it, but people who haven’t experienced it and the limitations it puts on you probably don’t understand how we have to organize information.”
In addition to diet and exercise, the speed at which stroke victims receive treatment impacts the likelihood they survive and make a full recovery, according to Daniel Sahlein, director of neuro-interventional radiology at Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine. If stroke patients get to Sahlein in time, he often uses a catheter-based treatment to remove the blockage causing the stroke through a combination of miniature rakes and suction.
“We have some patients who come into the hospital with the inability to move the right side of their body, the inability to speak, the inability to understand language and walk out the hospital completely normal two or three days later,” Sahlein said. “… There are other patients, who unfortunately, who get to the hospital too late, so we are no longer able to offer the procedure because the brain is already dead. The procedure no longer has any value.”
In order to get to a doctor in time, Sahlein urged people to remember the acronym F.A.S.T., meaning when a Face droops on one side, an Arm becomes weak or Speech becomes difficult to do or understand, then it’s Time to call 911 and go to the hospital.
While it’s important to know the signs of stroke, prevention is key. Smartt said 85% of strokes are preventable. Smartt noted high blood pressure is a common cause of strokes, so it’s important to get blood pressure checked at least twice a year. Decreasing blood pressure can also be as simple as eating a low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and engaging in moderate exercise such as walking 20 minutes a day.
After his strokes, Miller made similar lifestyle changes. To reduce blood pressure, he started relaxing exercises such as repeating “I’m completely relaxed, confident and happy” while letting go of tension in his muscles. He also consumed less alcohol, fast food and beef in favor of water, fruits and turkey. Miller increased his blueberry consumption because the berries have antioxidants that decrease muscle inflammation. The lifestyle changes not only reduce the chances of another stroke, but they also make Miller feel better.
“I am absolutely settled in and comfortable and enjoying the lifestyle changes,” Miller said. “Overall, it has made me a happier and more fulfilled human being because I know who I am, where I am. I am making intentional decisions about the quality of life.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
ymptoms of stroke
To help identify stroke symptoms, remember the acronym F.A.S.T.:
Face droops on one side.
Arm becomes week.
Speech is difficult to create and understand.
Time to immediately go to the hospital if you show one or more of these symptoms.
To learn more about stroke, contact the following organizations:
American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association
6500 Technology Center Drive, Zionsville
9640 Commerce Drive, Carmel
Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine
355 W. 16th St.