I had a medical incident recently that briefly robbed me of my speech. For me, losing my words is like the great dancer Shakira finding out she needs hip-replacement surgery.
It happened. I would end up — days after my 75th birthday — with my first night in a hospital.
It was the last day of March. I sat in my recliner munching my Honey Nut Cheerios. I had forgotten to tell my wife, Karen, something, so I rose, bowl in hand, to find her.
I wanted to say this: “Alison (our daughter) called earlier. She got her car fixed, and it only cost $20.” Simple, right? I could get no sound out of my mouth except for the word “twenty.”
It felt like an out-of-body experience. Was I having a stroke? I took my blood pressure. It was quite high, something like 180/90. But after a couple of minutes, my speech returned, and over the next several hours my pressure gradually came down.
The next afternoon I called a doctor. “Go to the emergency room,” she said.
Not Tampa International Airport
Over the next 24 hours, I came to learn that I had experienced something commonly called a TIA (no, not the airport, and they prefer TPA, anyway), a transient ischemic attack. Often called a ministroke, it happens when there is a brief interruption of blood flow to the brain.
Many people experience them, and as you age you are more at risk. Risk factors increase with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, smoking and anxiety. With the exception of anxiety, I can cross out the other factors.
The good news is that a single brief incident need not cause permanent damage. Just because you had a TIA once does not mean that it will occur again. The bad news is that a TIA can portend a full-blown stroke, causing permanent damage, or even death.
My emergency room visit led to a series of tests, an overnight stay in the stroke unit and encounters with three doctors and a series of nurses. My blood pressure remained pretty high. “It’s high because I am in the hospital!” I argued. The blood tests, the brain scan and the physical neurological tests imposed by the doctors all came out normal. An MRI offered the result, and I am paraphrasing, that “his brain is shrinking at a normal rate for someone of his age.”
Enter Caitlin Clark
Please consider all this as prologue to the most peculiar part of my story. It was a Friday, and I was looking forward to watching the semifinal games of the women’s NCAA college basketball tournament. Maybe it is a sign of a sports addiction that you think the loss of an opportunity to watch a game is more important than the potential loss of your good health.
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Since the 1990s, when my daughters played soccer, I have been addicted to women’s sports. My passion reached a new intensity with the appearance on the national scene of a young basketball player from the University of Iowa named Caitlin Clark. First of all, I loved the fact that her name was Clark — maybe a super-distant relative. I began watching her via YouTube when she was in high school. By her junior year in college, she had become the most celebrated player, male or female, in the country.
Often compared to NBA superstar Steph Curry, Clark wowed fans with her long-range shooting, her drives to the basket, her amazing passes and her creative vision on the court. She set countless records. A rival coach called her a “generational talent.”
Now, in the semifinal game against defending champion and undefeated South Carolina, Clark and her teammates would face their toughest test. And I was there to see it and root her on — from a hospital bed in St. Petersburg.
The beating of my heart
It turned out to be a great game, with the lead going back and forth. It was approaching midnight. Even as I rooted for Iowa, I assumed the strength and experience of South Carolina would prevail. But Clark kept stepping up, hitting on three-point shots, drives to the hoop, dishing perfect passes to her teammates, who converted them into points.
I had a perfect place to see the game. My hospital bed was propped up. The nurse who brought me to the room set up my television set and helped me find the right channel. I was hooked up to a bunch of gizmos, but did not care. At first, I was worried about disturbing the guy who was sharing the room with me, but he was so deeply unconscious that the staff could not wake him up.
Only a minute to go in the game now. The teams trade baskets. Clark makes two foul shots. Iowa up by four. Could Iowa beat the champs? My heart was beating with excitement and anxiety. I then thought, “Oh, shoot, maybe this is not such a good thing.” I am in the stroke unit, and I can hear my heart pounding. How would my obit describe the cause of death?
I am a good fan, but not a good watcher. If the Rays or the Bucs are in a tight game, I sometimes have to turn off the TV. Too much pressure. But not now. I take a deep breath. Four seconds left. Clark dribbles and flings the ball high above her head. Iowa wins 77-73. More than that, Clark and her teammates, and her opponents, have changed the very nature of their sport.
The medicine I need
It is two months later. Iowa lost to LSU in the finals. Several medical tests and doctor visits reveal no lasting damage from my TIA. I was prescribed three new medications: two blood thinners and something to even out my blood pressure. After getting used to the drugs, I feel like I am getting my mojo back.
I know now if I ever feel another TIA, I will go to the emergency room. You should, too. Slapped with mortality, I have added two things to my bucket list. I want to shoot some hoops with Caitlin Clark. Oh, and I’d like to dance, just once, with Shakira.