Michael Johnson is recalling the unusual physical sensations – involuntary movement of his left foot, numbness, “a sort of tingling sensation” in his left arm – that came over him moments after finishing his daily workout in his home gym in August last year. “I hobbled over to my weights bench and thought, am I having a cramp or something? I called my wife Armine over and said: ‘Hey, something feels weird. Something doesn’t feel right.’”
The cause wasn’t a cramp, though, overexertion or an infection. The legendary athlete – a four-time Olympic sprint champion, just 50 years old at the time – was having a stroke. As he tweeted soon after: “It seems these things can affect anyone, even the once-fastest man in the world!”
The confusion he felt was fairly typical, he points out now, eight months later, on the phone from his home in California. Many stroke victims do not realise at first that they are experiencing an event that could leave them dead or seriously disabled, potentially for life. “I experienced no pain,” he says, in a deep drawl reflecting his Texan roots. “There was no jolting moment that made me think: ‘I’m having a stroke.’ And I think that’s one of the things that makes it so potentially dangerous.”
After half an hour spent wondering what to do, Johnson decided to go to hospital. Armine drove him to the Emergency Room at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, 20 minutes from their home in Malibu. It was a wise call. A CT scan, then an MRI confirmed the ER doctor’s diagnosis of a stroke. “I’d been able to get off my bed, and on to the MRI table myself – but when the MRI ended 30 minutes later, I could no longer walk. I couldn’t stand or put any weight on my left leg. The numbness in my left arm had increased significantly and I couldn’t feel the two smallest fingers of my left hand. And my foot was completely numb.”
Johnson – an athlete once so supreme that he was known as Superman – was now enfeebled. The stroke had occurred deep in the right side of his brain, in an area called the thalamus – a thalamic or lacunar stroke, in medical jargon. His sudden helplessness prompted him to start asking a lot of difficult questions: what was his life going to be like now? Would he be able to dress himself? Would he need others to look after him? Would he recover – and how long would that take?
Frustratingly for Johnson, the medical team could not provide the clarity he wanted. “They said: ‘Because you’re in good shape and got here quickly, that improves your chances, but only time will tell.’” The doctors’ uncertainty about how well and how quickly he would recover was shocking, he says. “It made me feel – it’s hard to describe – just afraid and scared, and wondering what my future was going to be.”
In the 1990s, Johnson was the fastest man in history over 200 and 400 metres. He became the poster boy of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta after triumphing over both distances in custom-made golden spikes. Now he was having to come to terms with the fact that recovery from stroke is variable and not guaranteed. “It took a while for that to actually sink in,” he says.
Read the full article in The Guardian here
Author: Denis Campbell