It was 5:30 a.m. and Gary Anderson woke up to start his day working as a service technician at Hamm & Sons plumbing, a 30-minute commute from his south side home. It was going to be a normal day. But as he eased into his routine, Anderson began to feel dizzy. Soon, his vision was blurred.
By the time he called his fiancé, Stephanie Edwards into the room, Anderson was having difficulty standing up and his face was drooping. What seemed like a normal workday for Anderson, turned into an emergency situation. What he didn’t know: He was having a stroke. What he also didn’t know: He would suffer three strokes in less than a month.
“Gary’s case was unique in that he is so far the only person for which we have done two catheter-based procedures for two strokes during the same hospital stay at Methodist,” said Dr. James Fleck, a neurologist with IU Health Methodist Hospital. Anderson is also somewhat unique because of his age. He is 45 – fairly young by most medical standards.
“Age is a strong risk factor for having strokes. Every decade after the age of 50, our chance of stroke increases,” said Fleck. “Having said that, there are a number of younger people who have strokes for a variety of reasons and a variety of other causes other than hardening of the arteries.”
The Month of May is designated as “National Stroke Awareness Month,” a time to learn about the symptoms and causes of stroke.
For starters, stroke isn’t always tied to family history. Anderson’s mom died of cancer in December of 2015. His dad is living and there is no background of stroke.
So on January 15, Anderson and his fiancé were caught off guard. With the help of Anderson’s son, Edwards loaded him into their vehicle and drove him to the nearest hospital. He was admitted with two blood clots in his right arm, traveling to his brain. Vascular surgeons broke up the clots. He was home two weeks and was preparing to head back to work when he had a second stroke.
“It was it was very obvious what was happening,” said Edwards. “The left side of his face was totally drooping.” He was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital. “He coded and they decided he needed level one trauma care. We headed to Methodist,” said Edwards. Anderson was in ICU for two weeks before he was moved to a regular room. Two days later, on February 19, just as he was due to be released, he suffered a third stroke.
“If we hadn’t been here at Methodist, I don’t think he would have made it,” said Edwards,” a trained medical assistant who works in home healthcare. “Most people can’t walk or talk after one stroke and here he is after three.”
Three strokes are uncommon. But the weakness and dizziness are typical signals of the onset of a stroke, said Fleck. Other symptoms include numbness on one side of the body, trouble speaking, blurred vision, difficulty walking, and pain from a severe headache, said Fleck. “If you experience any of those things – call 911 and get to the closest hospital that can care for you. It’s important for people to know that IU Health Methodist Hospital is the only comprehensive stroke center in Indiana,” he added.
Most patients want to know if stroke can be avoided. Several risk factors can help modify the chances of suffering a stroke. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes that are untreated are all contributors to the risk of stroke, said Fleck. “And you can not smoke. And you should not drink alcohol excessively,” he said.
Physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet can also contribute to the approximately 800,000 strokes that occur every year in the United States, said Fleck.
“I was the deep-fried queen – fried chicken, fried pork chops – I’d roll it in flour and throw it in the grease,” said Edwards. Anderson’s favorite lunchtime fare was anything from a fast food, drive-through restaurant – burgers, fries and fried chicken. Anderson and Edwards were both smokers.
That was before his stroke. Since that frightening day of January 15 they both have quit smoking. The only food they eat is baked or boiled.
Something else happened after that fateful day – Anderson asked Edwards to be his wife. They are in it together.
“She’s amazing, She’s a good woman and I wanted her to be my wife. In the middle of all of this, I knew I wanted to be together forever,” said Anderson.
The couple first met 25 years ago as students at Ben Davis High School. They used to spend Friday and Saturday nights racing around the rink at Melody Skateland. Over the years, they went their separate ways. But four years ago they reconnected and they’ve been dating ever since. On one of the first dates, Edwards helped Anderson hunt down a deer and drag it out of the woods. Fishing and hunting are Anderson’s favorite pastimes, but since his stroke, his activity is limited. They spend their time watching movies, going for walks and tending to their goats.
He was released from Methodist on March 4 and began rehabilitation.
“No one is sure how I’m still here and I’m scared it could happen again. I know I just have to live well and look to the future,” said Anderson.
“It’s hard for everyone. It’s hard for me to see him struggle with every day life. It’s hard for him to sit back and watch me do things for him, said Edwards. “I just give him encouragement every day that he will get better because we’re looking to move to the country, get a little farm house and be old farts together.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.