Sebastian Baker at a therapy session at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida.
By Amir Khan
Two years ago, Sebastian Baker came home from his job as a Merrill Lynch business adviser feeling sick. When he looked in the bathroom mirror, his face was twisted and distorted, and before he could fully register what he was seeing, he collapsed on the floor. Baker realized his entire left side had gone numb and quickly hit redial on his cellphone, calling his cousin and telling him to come quick.
"I thought to myself, ‘They’ll never find me in here,’" Baker says. "I thought I was going to die there. I dragged myself from the bathroom through the kitchen and out of my condo, and that’s where my cousin found me."
The then 47-year-old Jacksonville, Florida resident was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed as having had a stroke. The next few weeks were a blur of hospital stays and rehabilitation, but one of his most vivid memories is of his doctors asking him questions he couldn’t answer coherently. “I couldn’t talk,” he says. “I could hear them ask me questions, but I realized that when I was talking, they couldn’t understand me. It was terrifying.”
A stroke occurs when blood vessels in the brain rupture or become blocked by a clot, depriving the brain of oxygen. These typically occur without warning, though it’s possible to reduce your risk with ahealthy lifestyle – eating well, exercising and keeping your blood pressure down.
"There’s a 50 percent reduction in stroke risk by keeping your blood pressure to normal levels," says Shephal Doshi, director of cardiac electrophysiology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "You can control it by eating a healthy diet, exercising, managing stress and if those things don’t work, medication.”
Other risk factors for stroke include smoking, migraines, being overweight and a family history of stroke. African-Americans have a higher risk of stroke, as do the elderly. Your chance of a stroke doubles each decade after age 55, according to the American Heart Association.
Read: How to Prevent a Stroke
Baker was diagnosed with hypertension several years earlier, which he and his doctor attempted tolower without medication first. “We tried to fix it by watching what I ate and exercising, but I wasn’t so lucky,” he says.
Baker’s recovery has been long, arduous and ongoing. Even today, two years later, his speech remains slurred and he struggles to do things he used to do with ease. “The most difficult part is getting up the stairs to my condo,” he says. “There are 37 steps, and it’s exhausting to go up and down.”
After a stroke, you have to rebuild the strength in many of your muscles, which can weaken during a long recovery period, Doshi says. “It’s amazing how quick you lose muscle strength from a lack of use,” he says. “When we have normal neurological function, we’re using our muscles constantly, even if we’re not exercising. When you have a stroke, you have a complete lack of use in some muscles, and they atrophy very quickly.”
The recovery is a long process that starts with basic stretching exercises, Doshi says, “but a lot of people can’t even do that in the beginning.”
As for those 37 stairs, Baker says they were what motivated him to get better.
"I wanted to be able to get up those steps," Baker says. "I knew I wanted to live on my own again, but before anything changed on the outside, I had to change on the inside. I was determined and was ready to put in the hard work."
That attitude is necessary for recovering from stroke, Doshi says. Patients who have the willpower to fight through the pain and persevere are the ones who get better. “The patients who don’t,” he says, “simply don’t do as well.”
Baker began getting occupational, physical and speech therapy five times per week, and the continued therapy paid off. Nearly two months after he checked in, he was released from rehab.
Read: Top-Ranked Hospitals for Rehabilitation
Today, Baker continues his physical therapy, although he’s still not back to how he was before the stroke. “My speech now still isn’t what it used to be,” Baker says. “I slur a lot, and it makes it sound like I’m from the islands, even though I’m from New Jersey.”
Unfortunately, Doshi says, it’s unlikely Baker’s speech will ever return to normal.
"The majority of recovery happens in the first 12 months," he says. "After that, it’s incredibly difficult to make substantial changes in speech or motor function."
Though he still has not fully resumed his old lifestyle, Baker returned to work in October 2012 – about six months after his stroke – and says he hopes his story gives hope to other people facing the same challenge.
"So many people don’t make it back to their old life because they give up," he says. "You have to be determined to make it, and force yourself to do whatever’s necessary. If you think you can do it, you will."