(Jim’s story has been written by his wife, Diane)
Healthy living was my husband's passion. He was a devoted runner and veteran of 32 marathons. As Fitness Program Manager for his division of the Air National Guard, he oversaw the physical fitness training of more than 1,600 soldiers. He retired from the military in 2009, after more than 40 years of service. No one could have predicted that, on Sept. 16, 2010, after less than a year of retirement, he would suffer a debilitating brainstem stroke.
Jim was driving alone in his big red Silverado truck (with a license plate that read, “RUN”), on his way to buy materials for a house he was rehabbing with our son. Suddenly he was overcome by dizziness and nausea. He had to pull over to the side of the road, vomiting and then aspirating. As he sat there, his phone rang. It was our son Jimmy calling. All Jim could say to him was, "Jimmy, I'm sick."
Jimmy immediately called me; I called our middle daughter, Jody, who has her Masters of Science in Nursing and was nearby. She rushed to him, assessed his condition, and determined she needed to call for an ambulance to get him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Jim was tested thoroughly, getting an MRI, CT scan and spinal tap, which revealed nothing abnormal. Then an angiogram revealed a tiny blood clot lodged in the brainstem, which controls all the automatic processes of the body, swallowing, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and consciousness. The cause of the clot remains unexplained.
Jim spent seven weeks in intensive care, where he required a feeding tube, tracheostomy and ventilator. During this time, we put up two pictures of Jim, one in his military blues and one of him running a marathon, to share with the health professionals, giving them an idea of who he was before the stroke. Six times in seven weeks, he went into respiratory distress and required rapid response support. That's when it was finally determined he had Central Sleep Apnea and had to have breathing support any time he slept. A tube ran from his trach to a ventilator to insure if he stopped breathing, it would alarm and wake him up, reminding him to breath.
My husband refused to give up. Every day before the doctors made their rounds, he would have me put on his running shorts and tennis shoes, along with his hospital gown. The doctors and nurses were quite impressed with his determination. Jim's persistence had so many effects on those around him. One day while he was in and out of respiratory distress in ICU, his boss, a colonel who he had great respect for, walked into his room, and he saluted her. He could not stand, but he still had the awareness, right from his bed, to salute her. She broke into tears, which made the nurses and his family cry too.
Jim has come a long way since September 16, 2010, working daily to make each day better than the one before. His commitment to fitness and healthy living remains strong. Despite issues with swallowing and balance, he has progressed to eating anything he wants and no longer requires a feeding tube. He's gone from walking with total assistance to using a walker or little assistance with his cane.
Jim participates every year, alongside our supportive families, in the ABC Brigade one-mile walk, which raises money and promotes stroke awareness. This one-mile walk, which takes him a little over one hour, is much harder than any 26.2 mile marathon he has ever run.
Our life has changed. Despite the huge leaps Jim has made in recovery, he misses his active lifestyle. He wants to work with his power tools again, but instead, he has to instruct our son and son-in-laws on the projects. He wants to drive, but I have to drive. He wants to run, but he is working just to walk. We used to eat out several times a week, but now his swallowing is so disordered that we don't eat out anymore. Sometimes it is heartbreaking to watch, because I know he is working so hard.
Once in a while in bed, at night, he'll say, "Rough day, Diane." My usual response is, "I know, baby, but tomorrow's a new day, and we'll start all over again."
On the flip side, we are so fortunate to have discovered just how precious life is, how strong we are and what an amazing bond our family has. We have three healthy, loving children and seven healthy, loving grandchildren. What more could we ask for? They all agree that Papa is funnier now than he was before the stroke. We laugh a lot at our crazy selves and our crazy busy routine. Also, if it had not been for the stroke, we would not have met our health professional angels and so many wonderful new friends, doing therapy right alongside Jim.
I am confident that Jim's exceptional medical care and his excellent therapies, coupled more importantly with his physical strength and mental health, have enabled him to survive the most difficult race of all. Joy, our oldest daughter, sums it up like this, “Dad has the runner’s mentality to run through it, which has taught him to embrace each new day as a challenge, a race, and he wills himself to cross that finish line daily, regardless of the challenges. And Mom is his biggest cheerleader."