The words he spoke to a friend that morning sounded slurred.
Then Drew lost consciousness.
He was bleeding inside his brain. He was having a stroke. He was also only 21.
The friend – actually, a friend of a roommate who happened to be the only other person at Drew’s apartment in San Luis Obispo, California – called 9-1-1. At the local hospital, doctors realized the severity of Drew’s condition and had him airlifted to another hospital better equipped to care for him.
That same morning, Frank and Shelby Sperling were driving to San Luis Obispo from their home in Oakland. They’d called Drew and gotten no answer, but didn’t think anything of it. He was probably tied up with his job at a golf course, they thought.
Halfway there, Drew’s landlord called them with instructions to go to the hospital in Santa Barbara. As horrible as this call would be under any circumstances, it was even worse under these conditions: driving along a coastal highway with their mobile phone service cutting in, trying to write the information using a faulty pen and no real scratch paper.
Finally at the hospital, Drew’s parents met with a neurosurgeon who explained that Drew was being put into a medically induced coma to allow his brain to rest and heal. The doctor also said Drew may not survive through the night.
“It was the longest night of our lives,” Frank said.
Drew remained unconscious for about a month. He spent the next four months learning how to live again.
He had such little muscle control he couldn’t even sit at the edge of his bed without falling over. He’d also lost about one-third of his weight, dropping to 102 pounds.
When Drew’s parents finally brought him home in the spring, he was confined to a wheelchair. The next phase of his recovery required an aggressive regimen of weekly physical, occupation and speech therapy.
Shelby helped, as did Drew’s two older sisters. Yet the lead role in pushing Drew along went to Frank, who had just finished a long assignment as a management consultant and had blocked this time off to decompress from the stress of his job.
Slowly, Drew built up muscle strength and that helped his muscles relearn to walk. He advanced from the wheelchair to a walker, then to a pronged cane. He began walking on his own again last year.
Drew still uses a cane when walking in San Francisco, where crowds and traffic can make walking tricky. With limited mobility in his right arm and no peripheral vision on his right side, he doesn’t drive. Botox injections in his arm muscles have helped provide more flexibility.
Drew posted this video of his recovery in April 2012
Emotional recovery is tougher. Part of it was seeing how much younger he was than other stroke survivors.
He reminds himself every day how far he’s come in four years. Sometimes that’s enough; sometimes it isn’t.
“My friends have gone on to have careers and while I have fallen behind them,” Drew said. “I know that I will achieve this same goal, but I also realize that I have had an experience – invaluable in many respects – that has made me stronger and successful.”
Speech therapy has helped him regain the ability to enunciate words. However, lingering aphasia – a condition that disrupts the brain’s ability to use language – sometimes causes him to struggle for the right words in conversations.
“I’ve made a lot of progress already,” he said, “but I’m setting my goals even higher.”
“President of the United States, billionaire tycoon and maybe an actor,” Drew says, with a laugh. “I’m reaching for the stars.”
Even after extensive testing, doctors still aren’t sure why Drew had an aneurysm or why it burst. He had no risk factors or warning signs beyond a minor headache.
Each year, about 795,000 people experience a stroke. While it is the No. 4 cause of death in the United States, it is the leading cause of long-term disability.Luckily, doctors also haven’t found any indication that Drew is likely to have a stroke again.
“What’s important to us is the path to getting better,” Frank said.
Last year, Drew returned to the game he loves – golf.
He participated in Saving Strokes, an American Heart Association/American Stroke Association program that works with stroke survivors to retrain muscle coordination through golf. The program lasts five weeks, and serves about 1,000 people each year.
Count Drew among the success stories. He and his dad visit a nearby driving range to continue working on his skills every few weeks.
Something else will soon fill his schedule: a return to college. He plans to resume his education this winter, eyeing various colleges in the Bay Area.
To celebrate Drew’s progress, he and Frank have become active volunteers with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
In March, they spoke at a kick-off event for the Bay Area Heart Walk. It was aimed at top area executives and potential corporate donors – a group that a few years ago may well have included Frank.
“Instead of making $1 million decisions on a daily basis, I’m singularly focused on taking care of my son,” Frank said.
Drew is quick to correct his father on this point. “You mean now you’re making priceless decisions.”
Photos courtesy of Sperling family
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