Ken Thomas was having a bad day four years ago. His manager was on vacation, and he was running the show. “I found out someone had stolen $25,000 worth of tires from a work location,” he explains. “It looked like an inside job.” After a full schedule on the job, he picked up his daughter from after-school care and took her to Chik-fil-A.
That’s when things began to unravel for the then-42-year-old Richmond, Virginia, resident. “When I got out of car, I felt like I lost my balance, like I was going to fall,” Thomas, now 46, says. “But it subsided and I didn’t really pay it any more mind. When I got inside and looked at the menu, I couldn’t order. It was like I was confused.” The menu was a jumble of words and when he walked back out to his car, he lost his balance again.
Signs of a Stroke
Though Thomas didn’t know it at the time, the confusion and loss of balance were signs a stroke was on the way. He did realize something was amiss, however. He called his wife and told her to meet him at the hospital.
In the emergency room, his blood pressure was off the charts: 220/131. (A healthy blood pressure should be no higher than 120/80.) “Within a half hour, my whole left side was paralyzed,” he says. As soon as the numbness set in on his left side, he knew the diagnosis: He’d had a stroke.
Thomas’ speech was slurred, and his mouth and tongue were crooked. Doctors admitted him to the hospital, where it took two weeks to get his blood pressure under control. Four months of physical therapy followed.
“If I Knew Then What I Know Now….”
“Before the stroke, I had high blood pressure,” Thomas says. “I was on and off my meds. I didn’t like way the meds made me feel. One made me feel like somebody was drilling, the other one made me drowsy, lethargic.”
Like many African Americans who have this disease (the American Heart Association says more than 40 percent of us do), Thomas also committed the other cardinal sins of high blood pressure: He was overweight, coming in at 255 pounds at the time of his stroke, and he didn’t watch what he ate.
“I also didn’t know my family history,” he says. “I didn’t know how prevalent high blood pressure and stroke were in my family. I didn’t pay attention to it. I didn’t think I had to worry about it at my age.”
Add in the personal and professional briar patch Thomas found himself in at the time, and he was a stroke waiting to happen. His marriage was ending, and his job was pretty stressful. “I didn’t have any outlets to reduce stress,” the former college football player who’d once prided himself on staying in shape says. “I wasn’t running or lifting weights. I was just working.”
“It was like a perfect storm. There was no pain. That’s why they call it the silent killer,” Thomas says. “It is. If I’d known what some of the symptoms were, I might’ve realized earlier. I might’ve saved some of my mobility.”
His New Normal
Thomas has recovered since that 2008 November day, though he hasn’t improved as much as he’d like. “The doctors say, ‘Wherever you’re at after two years, you’re not going to get any better than that,’” he says. “But it depends on the person. I still have weakness on my left side. Today I can move and walk and do just about everything I was doing before, but with some difficulty. I still have some stiffness, and I walk with a noticeable limp sometimes.”
He has also dropped 55 pounds, and his blood pressure is under control. But that two-pill regimen he despised so much before his stroke? If only. Now he has his own personal pharmacy. “I take nine pills a day,” he says, “plus I apply a patch to my shoulder.”
And he has this advice for others with high blood pressure: “Go to the doctor and get your checkups. And take whatever meds you’re prescribed. I know now that if I don’t, there will be consequences.”
Know Your Family’s Medical History
Myth Lab: What Are Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?
Spot a Stroke F.A.S.T.
Why African Americans Don’t DASH