A stroke of luck

Running has always been a refuge for Steve Kelly, ever since he discovered it in his teenage years. It provided an outlet and allowed him to be alone with his thoughts, as well as build the discipline and focus required of a competitive runner.

In 2017, things took a turn while he was running a race and suddenly had a spell of vertigo, to the point where he couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. It lasted a few minutes in the middle of the race and then passed. At the time, he knew it was unusual, but because it went away, he figured it may have just been because it was a hot day, and he was dehydrated.

Over a six-week period, he started having unusual physical issues like problems with his vision. He thought at one point he might be having a stroke, but after looking at what the main symptoms of a stroke are, he convinced himself that wasn’t the problem.

One morning, he woke up and knew something was very wrong, so his wife Deborah called 911 and he ended up at Foothills Medical Centre where it was found that he had a blockage in a major artery in his neck which was causing him to have multiple strokes.

Steve spent 17 days in the Stroke Unit while doctors tried to figure out why a marathon runner was having strokes and how they could help him. While in the hospital, he had a number of additional strokes.

“They ran many tests trying to figure out what was going on and why I was still alive. I shouldn’t still be here based on what was going on in my arteries. In the end, the consensus was that running had given me a bypass system around the blockage, allowing adequate blood flow to my brain,” Steve said.

Doctors were able to get his strokes under control with medication, having decided that surgery was too risky. He was put on a very strong dose of blood thinners which enabled him to go home. The doctors have since backed off some of his medication after he had been stabilized.

“It was a close-up look at the great work that goes on at the hospital every day. The doctors and nurses were all so dedicated to helping me improve. They do this life-saving work every day, it’s remarkable.”

After leaving the hospital, he wasn’t sure what his life would be like or whether he could ever return to running. He recalls barely being able to walk around the block with Deborah, and his strokes left him with a feeling like he was falling forward. For about a year, Steve also endured crippling fatigue that he described as his brain forcing him to shut down.

He gradually improved to the point where one day, with his wife by his side, he was able to run around the block.

“It was very symbolic, that I could run again – even if it was a shadow of what I was doing before.”

Steve had always loved writing but as an engineer, it was usually writing technical documents. After what he had been through, he found the strokes became the impetus for him to write a book. He is now fundraising for Calgary Health Foundation where two dollars from the sale of every book will go to the Stroke Unit at Foothills Medical Centre. His book, titled “Stroke of Luck: My Life in Amateur Athletics” is a memoir about his experiences of being a competitive runner and stroke survivor.

“It’s the least I can do for the care I received. When I left the hospital, the idea of writing a book was there early on, even though it took me a while to get it together. From the beginning I wanted to help the Stroke Unit monetarily and this was a unique way I could do it.”

Steve encourages others to be active throughout their life, because in addition to the health benefits you get while you’re exercising, he believes it’s what saved his life. He uses his platform now to spread awareness about strokes and wants people to know of an updated acronym for stroke symptoms, which is appropriately, “BE FAST”:

B: Balance – Do they have loss of balance or are they dizzy? Are they having trouble walking?

E: Eyes – Can they see out of both eyes? Do they have sudden vision loss or blurry vision?

F: Face – Does one side of their face look like it’s drooping?

A: Arms – Does one of their arms feel numb? Can they raise both arms?

S: Speech – Is their speech hard to understand? Do they seem confused?

T: Time – If someone has any of these warning signs, call 911.

After being a competitive runner for 45 years, Steve now describes this as “my second running life”. He has even started a blog with that title. While his running career may be very different, it is every bit as satisfying.

“Time and race results don’t matter to me anymore. I’m so happy to be surrounded by people who compete at a high-level and to have the opportunity to coach them.”

He now runs with his wife and has taken the time to slow down to enjoy his runs, often taking a camera with him so he can capture beautiful shots along his journey.

“I’ve turned a bad situation into a very satisfying one and it still includes running. That’s the best outcome of all.”

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