Have you ever had an experience where you feel like you should know something, but no matter how hard you try you just cannot remember? This happened to me last night as Jolene and I went to see the new Spider-man 2 movie. I asked her a bit about the plot of Spider-man as I could not remember the story. The more she told me about the previous movie, the less I felt connected to any memory of knowing Spider-man. The really strange thing is that according to my Mom, he was my favorite super hero. She even made me a handmade Spider-man costume when I was five years old!
In reality, I have this experience many times every single day. Sometimes I catch myself wondering about fourth grade... Where did I live? Who were my friends? What did I like back then? And other times I cannot remember how to spell words or even read them. The most frustrating experiences involve forgetting details about close friends, relatives and major experiences in my life. Sometimes I feel l have forgotten everything and other times I am reassured that it will all come back to me.
Exactly two years ago, on May 11th 2012 I survived a very serious stroke. And two days before my stroke, I survived a heart attack. Considering that having a stroke is the leading cause of disability, I am very fortunate to now be healthy. In fact, I was quite healthy before these events, but unknown birth defects in my heart and brain threatened my life. Medical tests finally confirmed that the hole in my heart and missing carotid artery were the source of my headaches, paralysis, dizziness, memory and vision problems I had been experiencing regularly since childhood.
Despite visiting doctors and emergency rooms over the course of the previous 25 years, my concerns that I had experienced strokes and heart attacks were always dismissed as paranoia. The scenario played out almost exactly the same every time. I would offer my symptoms and the doctor would then take my blood pressure, listen to my heart beat and then tell me I was perfectly fine. I would ask for an explanation for my weakness, dizziness, poor vision, blackouts, arm or leg pains, sometimes even a visible limp, blinding headaches, shortness of breath, etc. And the response was always the same, "You are clearly very healthy, fit and read too much about health problems...you're far too young to experience a stroke or heart attack".
In reality, I have been recovering from these events since at least 5th or 6th grade, which is the first time I can account for the symptoms. We lived on the outskirts of town and I liked going fishing with my friend Rick at the nearby ponds. I apparently went fishing alone this time because my memory begins late at night. I was lying on the ground next to my fishing pole and had no idea where or why I was there. I walked home by moonlight and was punished the next day for coming home so late. My parents didn't buy my story that I just woke up on the ground with no memory of the previous events.
As I entered high school, I joined track and ran the one and two-mile events. Within the first few days, I had a strange event after track practice. I found myself lying on the floor of the school hallway hours after school had ended. I was completely confused. Eventually the blackouts became more common, always followed by memory loss and disorientation. My Mom took me to the hospital and the doctors performed numerous medical tests, but found nothing. Then I had a CAT Scan and a few days later I met with a specialist. He told me that I most likely had a tumor in my brain and that there was nothing they could do for me. I didn't completely understand the specifics, but his words were clear, I would not live very long.
At first, I felt relieved to know there was something wrong with me. I had been dealing with the prospect that my parents and friends didn't believe my symptoms were real. I remember crying for hours the very first night wishing that I wouldn't hurt my Mom, Dad and sister by dying. We had lost my Mom's brother very suddenly the year before and I could only think about the pain this would cause everyone. When I woke up the next morning, I clearly remember thinking that being alive is my goal. I will do anything to stay alive and healthy. I vowed to make the most of every single moment and love every experience. I was fourteen years old.
Over the years, my symptoms became more serious, often in the spring time, but I didn't mind because I was alive. It didn't occur to me that the diagnosis of a tumor was probably wrong until I was certain I had experienced a full stroke. I lost all feeling and control of my body on my left side while driving. After sleeping for several days, the memory of the event faded and was replaced with the struggle to understand what I was doing with my life the previous weeks and months. The cycle of memory loss immediately after serious headaches, paralysis, etc. repeated until May 11th, 2012. At last, medical professionals had found my birth defects and there was a treatment available!
Why am I sharing my medical history with the world in my public blog? I have suffered some very extreme circumstances that were seemingly unexplainable for most of my life. And I would have done anything possible to end this cycle of prosperity (when I was feeling well) and misery when I was ill. When you believe you may die many times over again, you learn to appreciate every moment you do feel well. I recall lying down for days at a time dreaming of regaining my vision, literally daydreaming of sunny blue skies and green grass from my childhood in Yucaipa, California.
I do not want others to suffer and I cannot be the only person with these problems. In fact, there are millions of people in a similar situation who have not be diagnosed with heart defects. I am not a medical professional, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is not normal to have any of the serious symptoms I have mentioned. And sadly, seeing a doctor may not get you anywhere even if you tell him/her that you suspect a serious problem. In my case, doctors did not believe me until the day my stroke was confirmed by an MRI approximately 8 hours after the fact.
So what can you do? First, never give up! Second, learn as much as you can about your symptoms and likely causes. I was 100% sure about my heart attacks and strokes even though the medical professionals did not take me seriously. However, I did some very important things all on my own that likely saved my life more than once. I drink a lot of water, which naturally thins your blood. I do not drink alcohol or use tobacco. And I am conscious of everything I eat and drink. I also stay in good shape physically, which was probably the greatest contributor to surviving.
Today, I am very healthy and I will likely not experience another major event until I am very old. I struggle with my memory daily as the last stroke was probably the worst and it literally disconnected most of my visual memory and language from my conscious mind. I'm working very hard to re-establish those memories and I bring this up because some of you may be reading this wondering why I haven't called or written. It could be that I have simply forgotten your name or face unintentionally. If this is the case, please take the first step and drop me a line so we can reconnect.
A good friend of mine was kind enough to call me (right after my stroke) to say hello and invite me to his home for the weekend. I remembered his name, but I didn't really make the connection for several months. He said something like, "Come visit me in LA and my wife and I will make you a wonderful dinner...you will love it here." A few weeks later, he called again and, amidst my confusion and memory loss, I wondered, "how well do I know this person?"
Then one day it clicked and I knew him instantly! The memories were coming back and I was very excited to recall that Arturo Sandoval was in fact my good friend. We had spent time together just the year before playing trumpets in my Minneapolis shop and hanging until all hours of the night after his concerts at the Dakota. I first met Arturo at an ITG conference years before and he came to my table to play my trumpets on every visit. How could I have forgotten Arturo? A major stroke will erase almost every memory for at least the first few month of recovery and possibly forever.
I talked to Arturo a few weeks ago as he was very excited to let me in on something truly unbelievable. He had finished mixing the new Spider-man 2 soundtrack with Hans Zimmer and the first two minutes of the opening scene were played on the trumpet I built him. It is fitting that as a five-year-old boy, Spider-man was my hero and now, at thirty-nine-years-old, my hero Arturo Sandoval is playing the trumpet I built on the latest Spider-man movie. Seeing the movie for the first time in the theater just last night and hearing his signature huge, bold and expressive sound as the camera followed Spider-man swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper inspired this entire blog entry.
I cannot tell you how great it feels to be alive today and everyday. I am so very grateful for all of my family, friends, clients and those of you I have never met. I'm sure I will meet many of you someday as we eventually cross paths.
Jolene deserves special recognition as she has endured many long conversations that led me to re-establishing many more memories and inspiration to recover quickly. I cannot imagine a more beautiful life than waking up every morning healthy and by your side.
My Dad has been extremely supportive over the past two years taking a great deal of his time to help move across the country, set up my new shop and test new Mexican restaurants. And Jen was there to help me hold Harrelson Trumpets together when I had no real understanding of my company. She forced me to walk when I literally could only limp, getting me back on my feet in just a few months. Anyone who has received a trumpet, accessories or service from me in the past two years can thank my closest friends and family more than me!
I am thankful that Arturo never gave up on me despite my long recovery and memory loss. Few people have shown me such kindness, sincerity and patience. We share a true passion for life, love and freedom and I am forever grateful for your friendship.
And likewise, so many of you have been extremely patient as I re-learn how to do almost everything. I truly appreciate your kindness, patience, support, words of encouragement and friendship.
Today is Mother's Day and I obviously would not be here if it weren't for my own Mom, Beth Kocab Harrelson. I know it pains you to read this blog entry, but this has been my reality. And you have been there for me again and again throughout my entire life. I was incredibly lucky to have survived birth (that's another story) and to have you as my greatest role model as a child was an unfair advantage. You helped me plant my first bulb, which blossomed into a beautiful yellow tulip the following spring. You challenged me to ski down the steepest slopes at Bridger Bowl. And you showed me that anything was possible if I only take action. I love you Mom. Please remember to take your daily aspirin and drink a full glass of water before bed and when you wake up in the morning! :)
The majority of us will experience a preventable stroke or heart attack. I emphasize PREVENTABLE in hopes that you will take the next few minutes to educate yourself further on the subject. Choosing to act on this advice may someday save your life.
In fact, based on the number of visitors to my blog in the past week, over 7,000 people may read this post within the next seven days. More than one third of you may have some form of cardiovascular disease. That's approximately 700 visitors to my website per day. If this message reaches even a few of you, reminding you to take preventative action, lives can be saved.
This chart is available on the American Heart Association website. Please take time to read more at www.heart.org and make the most of every day.