Life can amaze, inspire or amuse us, but it can also deliver surprises that trouble, torment or test us and force us down a path of perseverance that tests our mettle, heightens our awareness and leads us to a brighter tomorrow.
On Nov. 17, 2011, heavy-duty mechanic Matt Stephenson was working at Inland Kenworth in Penticton when he started feeling dizzy and light-headed. He also was having trouble keeping his balance.
A co-worker helped Stephenson to a workbench so he could rest for a few minutes.
"I calmed down and I went to stand up, but I couldn't get my balance," he said, adding that he figured it was either due to flu symptoms or perhaps vertigo.
The co-worker called Stephenson's wife, Lisa, and the couple went to the hospital.
Physicians performed a CT scan and an MRI.
Within two hours, the neurologist gave him the diagnosis: "You've had a stroke."
The news floored Stephenson because, at age 37, he figured he was far too young to suffer a stroke.
February is Heart Month across Canada, and Stephenson wanted to share the details regarding his stroke, his recovery and his outlook on life.
From the time he was admitted to Penticton Regional Hospital in the early afternoon and following his second MRI at 8 p.m., Stephenson had lost motor functions in his right leg and right arm as well as his sense of touch on his right side.
"My face was also starting to droop a little bit," he said. "I was slurring words and I was unco-ordinated."
He remained in the hospital for two weeks and began a slow rehabilitation process, relearning how to walk and how to regain control along the right side of his body.
Stephenson had suffered a thalamic stroke. Doctors said the cells responsible for moving his arm and leg were dead and would not regenerate.
"You have to rewire that part of your brain," he said. "You have to teach a different part of your brain to move those body parts."
For seven months, Stephenson received physiotherapy, occupational therapy and worked with a neuropsychologist. By May of 2012, less than six months following his stroke, he was back working part time. Two months later, he was up to full-time hours.
He changed his lifestyle. He began exercising regularly, improved his diet and started running as much as possible.
In April of 2012, Stephenson completed his first 10-kilometre race, the Sun Run. He also participated in the Giant's Head 10K run as part of Summerland Action Festival in June, the Terry Fox Run (10K) in September and the Okanagan Marathon in October in Kelowna, where he finished his first half-marathon.
In addition to running, he returned to racing cars through the American Speed Association's OK Tire Series. He has raced cars since 1991 and has been with the speed association since 2010, travelling to Vernon, Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George.
"My outlook on life has changed a whole bunch. Each day is precious and you've got to live each one to the fullest," said Stephenson, who noted he asked doctors if his health or family history contributed to the stroke.
"They listed my stroke as 'no known cause,'" he said. "All tests were inconclusive."
Currently, Stephenson is about 95 per cent recovered from his stroke, and has excellent blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
He urged everyone to learn stroke symptoms and to seek medical help if they begin to experience any.
"Don't ignore it," he said. "Get help right away."
Stephenson said anyone who has a stroke must work hard throughout the rehabilitation process. In fact, people should exceed the recommendations of doctors when it comes to their recuperation and training schedule, he said.
"Go beyond that. Push yourself every day. I set goals for myself - every day."
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