My story began in the early morning of November 17, 2021, and resulted in a re-birthing of who I am and what I’m becoming. I had a massive stroke that caused paralysis of my right side and left me unable to speak. I was life-flighted to the hospital where I work, and suddenly, I became the patient, not the caregiver. I received thrombolytics, then went to the neuro-interventional suite, where they retrieved most of the blood clots from my middle cerebral artery. Two days later, I walked out of the hospital with the assistance of my wife. I was still in shock and trying to comprehend what had happened—my diagnosis: cryptogenic stroke, a stroke without an easily identifiable source. I have struggled to understand what this means to me and my health. It remains a source of profound anxiety for me.
There are a few things worth mentioning about my hospital stay. First, the physicians and staff were terrific—every one of them. Second, my friends took on a whole new meaning. They were the ones who came and sat with my wife, not knowing the outcome. They cried when they could finally come back and see and talk to me. These are the friends that will always be in my life. Finally, I could not love my wife more than I did during those days. She is my hero.
Once I was home, I was able to concentrate on my recovery. I cruised through speech and hand therapy. I graduated both after just eight sessions. These helpful therapy sessions did not take me where I needed to be. I was missing something. I needed to feel solid and confident in everything I did, but I wasn’t there yet.
I felt no pressure to get back to work from anyone other than myself. I now know that returning to work after only three weeks was too early. I suffered from anxiety, my speech didn’t feel normal, and I had an episode of aphasia in a meeting: it was horrible. While I looked entirely normal physically, I was not functioning well mentally. My mind was spinning out of control, and I could not reign it in. I no longer knew who I was or what I was becoming. My mind took me down paths of dark imagination.
I had them all: anxiety, fear, depression, and a lack of confidence and courage. However, there are several things that I have purposely done to improve these adverse conditions. Initially, I went to mental health therapy. Unbeknownst to me, I found a therapist specializing in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You see, PTSD can begin anytime something happens to you that you do not want to happen. So, by sheer luck on my part, I found the correct therapist. My therapist recommended that I consider taking medication for my anxiety and depression. This helped me to gain needed control over my mood. However, I still needed to dig deep to fix my issues, so I hired a high-performance coach. She ended up being more like a therapist to me. It was difficult to discuss my life’s lows, how I was terrified that I might hurt someone or myself, and my anxiety about being alive, not knowing if another stroke would occur again. Every day I worked on my courage and my confidence. I signed up for online courses and just tried to hang in there through it all. I kept telling myself that time heals all wounds.
The final thing that has made a massive difference in how I feel is learning the practices of breathwork, meditation, and cold exposure. Daily breathwork and meditation allow me to be more present and patient with others. They give me control over my autonomic nervous system. I obviously prefer “rest and relaxation” to “fight or flight.” As my coach said, “breathwork is your superpower.” It is incredible how a cold shower boosts my mood, increases my mental resilience, and improves my ability to focus.
So, here is my advice to stroke victims and their families. First, remember F.A.S.T., Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time to call 911. When having a stroke, it is imperative to get help quickly. Have a written emergency plan and post it somewhere in the house where it can be easily seen and followed. Second, your medications are vital to your health and can prevent a second stroke. Take them. Third, the runaway thoughts and anxiety you feel are genuine, and you need to deal with them directly. I recommend a therapist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. Have a trusted resource whom you can talk with a lot. Fourth, exercise and meditate most days of the week. If you aren’t good at meditation, then do breathwork. These are not magical and do not provide immediate relief, but they work. Finally, end each of your showers with cold water. It will change your mental and physiological state for the better. These recommendations will help you make it to the other side, where your life has greater purpose and growth.
In the past year, I have accomplished much — some of it on my own and some with others. I want to thank everyone who helped me in this part of my journey. I know it is not over, and my new life has just begun. Looking back, I am more present, patient, reflective, and empathetic. I would not change what happened to me for those things alone. I love my wife and my family and friends. It took me too long to realize these things. Don’t wait! Savor every moment. Life is too short.
Mike Campsey is an interventional cardiologist.