Thursday 23 Oct 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: Major strokes leads to major life changes – for the better

Published: 9:00 am CDT, July 3, 2014

Owning a bar is tough. Owning two bars is tougher.

Owning two bars and a restaurant? Well, no wonder Andrew Fisher worked 18 hours a day, six days a week.

And did we mention he also had twin sons in diapers?

So when Andrew got headaches excruciating enough to force him to an emergency room – twice – and both times doctors dismissed them as cluster headaches, he was satisfied with that diagnosis. Even if he also had bouts of double vision that lasted between 30 to 60 seconds.

It wasn’t until later that he learned these were symptoms of transient ischemic strokes – warning signs his body was sending to alert him that a major stroke might be coming.

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Around 4 a.m. on March 19, 2009, Andrew came home from work feeling weak, light-headed and dizzy. He went to bed, thinking he was just overtired. When he woke up around 10 a.m., he felt strange, almost like he was intoxicated, even though he hadn’t had any alcohol. He tried to revive himself with a shower, but found he didn’t have the strength to keep his arms up to wash his hair.

“My arms just felt like bowling balls,” Andrew said.

While brushing his teeth, his fiancée noticed his face was sagging and speech was slurred. Add the arm weakness, and Andrew was exhibiting classic symptoms of a stroke.

Andrew scoffed. He was 35 and he insisted that strokes only happened to people “in their 70s or 80s.” So he went to work.

Hours later, someone complained about his incomprehensible speech. He asked one of his managers if anything seemed wrong.

“Well, you sound drunk,” the manager told him.

Andrew then got up, ready to seek medical attention. But his legs didn’t work. He collapsed, and his employees called 9-1-1.

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Doctors thought he’d had a stroke, but initial tests failed to confirm it. It wasn’t until the following afternoon that they uncovered the source of his problems: two blood clots had blocked a key artery to the brain, causing a major stroke that is often fatal.

Andrew was flown by helicopter from his local hospital in Evansville, Ind., to the University of Louisville Hospital so he could be treated by an interventional neurologist. By the time he arrived, his condition had worsened and he was well outside the 4-hour window that is optimal for treating a stroke with intravenous tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). But he was still within the window for treatment with an interventional procedure.

Dr. Alex Abou-Chebl used an approach similar to angioplasty done for heart attacks – threading a special type of catheter up the artery starting at Andrew’s groin and using it to remove the clots. In about an hour, the first clot was removed.

“It was like a burst of light,” Andrew said. “Instantly, I could talk and you could understand what I was saying.”

It was the beginning of an extraordinary turnaround, a best-case scenario.

Once the second clot was removed, Andrew could wiggle his fingers and feet. He was talking and swallowing by the end of the procedure, which also included the placement of two stents (mesh-like tubes that prop open arteries) in his brain.

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Four days later, Andrew walked out of the hospital. Recovery took about six months, as Andrew taught himself how to do basic tasks.

The bills took a major toll. Lacking health insurance, Andrew lost his businesses and filed for bankruptcy protection. He ultimately received assistance from the University of Louisville for a blood thinner and blood pressure medicine.

Today, Andrew takes just an aspirin a day. He’s found a better balance of work and life, limiting his hours as an RV salesman to 40 per week. He makes sure he gets plenty of rest, and eats healthy – “Very little salt, no red meat and lots of veggies,” he said. He’s kicked his habit of smoking more than two packs a day. He’s endured bouts of severe anxiety since the stroke, but has learned to manage the episodes.

Andrew now understands that anyone can have a stroke – at any age. He also knows it is the No. 4 cause of death in the United States, and a major cause of physical impairment.

He wants others to know those things, too.

As a volunteer for the University of Louisville, he speaks to medical groups and appears in public service announcements. He spoke to members of Congress during the American Heart Association’s Lobby Day in April 2011 and published a book about his stroke experience in May 2011, donating proceeds to the University of Louisville.

It’s a radically different life than he had five years ago. And a fuller one.

“I’m definitely aware of how fragile life is,” he said. “I’m richer now than I ever was and I’m not talking about money. I may not be as good of a provider, but I’m a good dad and my life is better.”

And it’s getting better still. On Nov. 29, Andrew will marry his high school sweetheart. His best man? Dr. Abou-Chebl.

Andrew (left) and Dr. Abou-Chebl

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Photos courtesy of Andrew Fisher

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

Longtime Boy Scout leader no longer taking chances with his health

A heart attack at 37 sent marathon runner down a new path

‘He didn’t want to look at our daughter and tell her I’m not coming home’