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After the Stroke: Matt Schwalb Tells His Story

Editor's Note: This blog was originally posted in June of 2013. I'm reposting it as a tribute to my friend, Matt, on his 5th Strokeaversary. Matt continues to work at maintaining the lifestyle changes he began after his stroke, recommitting himself to his health every day.

When we met, Matt was nearing two years since his stroke. At 41, the idea of a stroke was the last thing on his mind. But walking to the laundromat that early March morning changed his life. Here, Matt shares his story.

Matt, how did you realize you were having a stroke?

On my way to the laundromat, I started to feel warm and the slight headache I'd awoken to was worse. My left arm started to hurt and grow progressively more numb. When I put down my laundry bag, I realized I'd somehow walked into the street. When I entered the laundromat- sweating- and gave my name, my words came out slurred, as if I'd been drinking.

Thinking I may be coming down with the flu, I boarded the train and headed to work. My arm grew progressively heavier and it was difficult to breathe. The idea of a stroke crossed my mind, but I thought, No Way. You're only 41. There is NO way this is a stroke.

At noon, after my left leg started to numb and my face seemed crooked, a co-worker asked if something was wrong. I broke down and admitted I might be having a stroke. They immediately drove me to the hospital.

By the time we arrived (2pm?), I was having major trouble walking. I truly felt scared then because all of a sudden there were a bunch of people working on me - tubes being shoved in, clothes flying off...just like in the ER show. Wow. That's wild, Matt. Why were you so reluctant to believe it was a stroke?

First, I was only 41. You don't have strokes at 41! Or at least I didn't think so. Plus, I had never had health issues, was at a good weight, and took care of myself through yoga and running.

I never considered that my diet might be an issue, because everything else about me seemed fine. As a bachelor living in NYC, I often dined at the best restaurants. I ate lots of meat, rich dishes, bacon, butter. Good beer. My friends shared that interest so we treated ourselves often. When I cooked, I used a LOT of butter, bacon, and rendered fat for my sauces, etc.

Because there were no health issues, I never visited the doctor. My job was high-stress, but I exercised, didn't smoke, and wasn't overweight. I was the classic "can't happen to me" story.

So what were you told at the hospital?

Definitely a stroke. My MRI showed two small blood clots on the brain. Cholesterol was blamed. My level wasn't sky-high, but the neurologist said, high enough to cause a stroke.

So how did you deal afterward?

So many emotions. First, I was angry. I believed I was in good shape and taking care of myself. When I walked around Hoboken and saw people who looked out of shape, I resented them. Then I developed a fear of eating. What was okay to eat and what wasn't? It was a constant mental struggle for a time.

I finally sought professional help, which gave me the chance to vent. By doing so, I was able to see that while I'd been good about regaining my physical health, I'd been neglecting the mental part. Some of the basic nutritional tips my therapist gave me started to make sense, and my jumbled thoughts became less jumbled.

So your healing really started with your therapist. When did you feel like yourself again?

In July, four months after the stroke, I had moments where I felt like myself. I attended my brother's wedding. I started beginner's yoga. In October, I began meditative yoga, and it was like a rebirth! I had never been strong at meditation, but with my brain in need of support, I practiced more. My teacher, Amy, would send me advice and tips. That made such a difference. To say I am indebted to her is an understatement.

Meditation is one of those far under-rated practices for most people. There are SO many health benefits! And it can take just minutes a day if that's all someone has, right?

Definitely.

What is your diet looking like these days?

I've eliminated about 75% of processed foods and almost all dairy. When I do include dairy, like the occasional soft cheese, it's always organic. I eat the colors of the rainbow, lots of greens...and no more BLUE Gatorade. If I don't recognize an ingredient on a label, I know it's not likely good for me and I pass. Instead of butter, I use soy-free Earth Balance. My breads are sprouted and my grains are brown. I rarely ever eat red meat anymore, and occasionally chicken and fish.

Just as important as my diet, though, is that I make sure to visit my doctor for checkups! I feel that if I had been doing that, my stroke could have been prevented.

Have these changes made a difference?

Absolutely! I've been able to get off my cholesterol meds and the antidepressant I was on for a little while. I take omega-3 and Vitamin D3 supplements. My doc was blown away by my last test results, and I'm only required for six-month visits now. My neurologist, who has high blood pressure himself, consults with me about nutrition! He is amazed by my recovery. Because brain blood clots are so serious, full recovery usually takes longer and is almost never fully expected.

In May 2012, I ran my first 5k since the stroke. I've since run 9 more, and hope to complete a 10k this year. In July, I beat my pre-stroke time by 40 seconds. I started to cry once I realized what I'd done.

How do you feel today, more than two years after the stroke?

I feel better than I have in my life. I have some issues with balance, my left arm isn't as strong as the right, and I still have some neck and shoulder pain. That said, the stroke was the best thing that ever happened to me. It happened at an age where I could do something about it.

A friend of mine asked when I would return to my old eating habits. "Why would I want to?" I said. I was given this second chance, and it is my responsibility to make the most of it. A few people may think I am full of sanctimonious BS, but others have said my story has inspired them to make changes, too. Maybe this is my legacy?

Matt Schwalb
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