J. Loren Sisson IV has always been on the move.
A lifelong athlete, he played basketball in college. He then worked as a personal trainer in the gym his family owned.
And he did it all with a hole in his heart – a condition that was discovered after he had a “warning” stroke.
Loren, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., was doing dumbbell chest presses with a friend in May 2010 when things looked fuzzy through the peripheral vision in his right eye.
He immediately checked his eyes in the mirror and noticed they seemed unusually dilated.
“I thought maybe I was dehydrated or was having a migraine, so I laid down in a back room and put some ice on my head for 10 minutes,” said Loren, who was 26 at the time.
After resting, he returned to the gym to talk to his friend. But his words weren’t coming out as he expected.
“Everything sounded funny,” Loren said. “I was slurring all my words. I knew what I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t say it.”
Loren’s friend immediately called Loren’s mom, who had worked as a cardiac technician for 25 years. She said to get Loren to an emergency room right away. Things continued to get worse – Loren’s right arm went numb from his fingertips to his collarbone for about 10 minutes.
At the hospital, Loren heard a nurse say, “We have a possible stroke on our hands.”
“And I just panicked,” Loren said. “The thought hadn’t crossed my mind that I was having a stroke.”
Over the next several hours, Loren’s symptoms went away and tests came up negative for a stroke. Still, doctors kept Loren overnight.
He underwent more tests the next day, and that’s when doctors discovered an opening between the two chambers of his heart – a hole that’s known as a patent foramen ovale (PFO).
“To get that news, it kind of rocked my foundation,” Loren said. “I didn’t know if that was something they could fix, or if it meant I was going to die.”
The next day, Loren was transferred to a cardiac hospital in Norfolk, where doctors closed his PFO by inserting a titanium and Kevlar button into his heart. It turned out that Loren actually had two adjacent holes spanning 8 millimeters.
Doctors later determined that he had experienced a transient ischemic attack (TIA). They told Loren that as he bore down lifting weights, the hole in his heart burst open wider, causing deoxygenated blood to reach his brain.
Most people born with a PFO don’t know it until they experience a medical condition such as a stroke or a TIA.
Loren was released from the hospital a few days later. He had follow-up visits with doctors every few weeks to make sure the “button” closing the hole was still in place.
He was restricted from working out for the first six weeks following his surgery, then added weight slowly for the next several months. Loren was able to resume his full workout regimen about six months after his surgery, but remains wary of any symptoms that something may be wrong.
Now 29, Loren has learned a lot about his condition and other heart issues. He’s become active with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association in hopes of raising awareness. The American Heart Association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke.
“It’s like when you buy a car and then realize everyone else who has that car,” Loren said. “I never paid any attention to how many heart problems are out there, or what a PFO was before this happened.”
In the last year, Loren has become involved with the AHA, speaking at local events and sharing his story. The gym that his family owns and he manages has actively raised money for the AHA for the past two years.
He’s also kept busy with is family. Loren and his wife Lauren welcomed a daughter Avery in September.
Loren says he wants others to learn how to recognize the signs of stroke.
“I’m living proof that it can happen to anyone,” he said. “We all need to know how to respond when stroke-like symptoms show up.”
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