On June 3, 2006, fit after months of hard training, I stood at the starting line of the Honu Half-Ironman triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. By then I had completed more than 40 triathlons, including the king of them all, the Hawaii Ironman itself. An Ironman triathlon comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile run, raced in that order and without a break.
I knew I’d be in for a challenging race. What I didn’t know was that in less than two hours I’d face the biggest challenge I had ever confronted. By the end of the day, I’d be lying in an intensive care unit attached to an array of machines that were keeping me alive.
Eighteen miles into the 56-mile bicycle leg, working smoothly up Queen Kaahumanu Highway, I began to feel dizzy.
My vision blurred and got worse with each push of the pedal. Ahead I saw a patch of grass that looked like a good place to stop. I had never dropped out of a race before. I was 33 years old, in the best shape of my life, and yet I thought I was dying. I managed to pull off the road, unsnap my helmet, and because I was so dizzy, used my bike to steady myself as I lay down.
Somewhere in my brain a weakened blood vessel had ruptured. A torrent of blood was literally flooding my brain cavity near the critical area that controlled my breathing. CT scan results showed I had had a brain stem hemorrhage. The rupture was in an area where both cognitive and motor functions are controlled, functions like breathing, feeling, seeing, walking and talking.
After I had been helicoptered to Honolulu, a doctor told my wife, Kelsey, that even if I were to defy the odds and survive, I would most likely spend the rest of my life in a “locked-in state.” That means I would be unable to move, speak or communicate. Months later, when I was back in California, I had surgery to remove the cause of my stroke—a midbrain benign tumor that had been growing slowly all my life.
Before that surgery and before I was strong enough to be flown to California for the intensive rehab that would occupy my life for years, I drifted in and out of consciousness in the neuro-intensive care unit at The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, watched over by Kelsey and my family. They would be both thrilled by each step of my progress and frightened by each setback. Such is the drama and reality of brain injuries.
A partial list of my daily medical procedures in intensive care reads like the car repair bill no one wants to get: external ventricular drains, shunt revisions, interior vena cava filter, cerebral angiograms, central venous catheter, arterial line catheter, tracheostomy and multiple CT scans. My discharge form stated that I had had a midbrain hemorrhage along with an intraventricular hemorrhagic extension. I’d been in a coma and had suffered respiratory failure, quadriplegia, obstructive hydrocephalus, recurrent fever, dysarthria, dysphagia and diplopia. I’d had a urinary tract infection and deep venous thrombosis.
My first clear memory was of my mother soft-tossing a Nerf ball at me to see if I could catch it. It had been five weeks since I had stepped off my bike.
When I awoke from my semi-conscious fog, I gradually became aware that I’d have to start learning everything all over again: eating, speaking, walking, shaving — basic things everyone takes for granted. I was at square one, like a 2-year-old child. I knew the road ahead would be tough, like nothing I had ever done.
My training as an athlete taught me to keep pushing and never give up, never despair. It would prove to be a valuable lesson.
By the time we headed back home on July 9, I had lost 30 of my 187 pounds. My head was shaved, and those five weeks under the dim lights of the intensive care unit had done nothing for my physique or tan. I was pale as a ghost.