I had a stroke at 28 and my colleagues saved my life

Stephen Vidman (in grey) and his colleagues.
Courtesy of Stephen Vidman

  • Stephen Vidman was in a research laboratory when he began experiencing stroke symptoms.
  • His colleagues put him in an office chair and drove him to the emergency room.
  • The doctor removed a blood clot the size of a pinky tip.

This as-told-two essay is based on a conversation with Stephen Vidman. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was younger, I was hit by a tow truck and thrown more than 200 feet into the air. I shouldn’t have lived, but I did. After that accident, I was always interested in the idea that someone could be trapped in their body. I wanted to help people who had spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and strokes – terrible wounds that we don’t have a cure for yet. I went to physical therapy school, but while there I realized I was more interested in the science of these conditions.

I enrolled in grad school to study neuroscience with a focus on regeneration—building new neurons and vascular connections after a major injury. I walked into my lab at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center campus this spring when I tried to say goodbye to my mother, who was on the phone. Except, I couldn’t find the words. I mumbled something and hung up.

I was dizzy when I tried to get to work and when I got up I fell over. My right side was paralyzed and I couldn’t speak. But my brain knew right away that I was having a stroke. I had become the patients I was fascinated by: I was trapped in my own body.

My colleagues recognized what was happening and rushed me to the emergency room

My friends have told me that I am the luckiest unlucky person in the world. If you’re going to have a stroke at 28, it’s a good idea to be surrounded by neuroscientists. My colleagues immediately realized what was happening and one of them, Dr. Emma Harringtonconfirmed it.

Dr. Harrington knew I didn’t have time to wait for an ambulance. I knew that too: during a stroke, every minute without blood flow results in the loss of millions of neurons. They are not coming back.

Dr. Harrington’s fiancé works in the emergency room, and they knew the shortest way to get there. When the doctor sent a text to their fiancé, my colleagues loaded me into office chairs and drove me to the back entrance of the emergency room, where the ambulances move in.

I remember everything from the emergency room, but I couldn’t talk or move

I have a vivid memory of everything in the hospital. During a CT scan, I told myself not to fall asleep because I wasn’t sure I would ever wake up if I did. My right side was completely limp. While waiting for medics, I stabbed my arm and it felt like a corpse.

Because of my work, I know that when a patient becomes paralyzed, function typically does not return. My mind raced wondering how I would continue with my research and the rest of my life while in a wheelchair. My body was in the hospital room, but my brain was many years behind.

Then the doctors gave an injection and suddenly I had some movement in my arm and leg. I knew it was a tissue plasminogen activator, a medicine that dissolves blood clots to restore blood flow after a stroke. I realized that maybe I was okay. Every bit of blood that got past the clot in my brain was saving my neurons.

My surgeon showed me the blood clot he removed from my brain

Still, I had to have surgery to remove the clot completely. When I came out of the operating room, I could move my arm and leg. For the first time since that phone call with my mother, I could speak. I stuttered my words because I was so happy to be alive. I also had a lot of scientific questions about what had just happened to me.

Dr. Patrick Youssef, my neurosurgeon, showed me the actual clot that he had removed from my brain. It was huge: about as long as a pinky tip. As a patient, I thought, “That’s scary.” But as a researcher it was really cool to see.

I had my stroke on Tuesday and I was discharged on Friday. That was about six weeks ago. I have a few residual symptoms, like stumbling over my words occasionally, but overall I’m doing really well. I’m back in the lab and going on a Caribbean vacation with my girlfriend.

This experience has just renewed my dedication to science. My colleagues saved my life that day. But I also know that their research saves lives every day. We are so close to a lot of breakthroughs in medicine, especially in the brain. I am so excited to be working in biomedical research at such an important time, and eternally grateful that I still have the brain neurons I need to do that work.

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