I woke up early on June 30, 2020 with a light headache and neck pain. I had been having headaches off and on for about a week, but it didn’t feel like anything concerning.

I got ready for work and jumped on an 8:00am Zoom meeting after my usual morning coffee (which made me feel a little better). But by 10:30, the headache hadn’t gone away and I still felt tired.  I figured binge-watching Netflix past midnight and waking up early didn’t help.

I took some Tylenol before lunch, and had a brief dizzy spell when I stood up to walk to the restroom.  The rest of the day, I noticed a couple of times on video calls where things went out of focus briefly, but I thought I was just tired. While I had been having headaches in prior days, I hadn’t ever experienced dizzy spells or blurry vision like that.

Of course, it’s easy to say now, but I should have paid more attention to that.  By the end of the work day, my headache was better, and I didn’t have more dizzy spells or blurry vision.  I drove home around 4:00 feeling fine, but as soon as I got out of my Jeep, I knew something was wrong.  It felt like I stepped down onto a boat.  The ground didn’t feel solid, and as I walked to my front door things started to spin.  I got inside and onto the couch, and called my wife downstairs.  We phoned the ER nurse and were told to drive in immediately.  Before we could get into the car, things got worse.  I could barely walk and started vomiting.  At the ER entrance I had to be brought in by wheelchair, alone, because of COVID.  The ER team immediately started treating me for vertigo and checking for COVID symptoms.  I spent the next few hours with a bad headache, dizziness, and vomiting.  It wasn’t until about 10:00pm that I had a CT scan and MRI, and they found the area where I had an ischemic stroke.

An aside, those frontline workers during COVID are amazing!  As I was being rolled into ER, still vomiting, they were right there helping and trying to figure out what was going on with no hesitation.

The recovery process and current state of life for you

I spent the first night in the hospital with little sleep being treated for the head pain and having my blood pressure monitored.  Because of COVID, my family could not be there or visit.  The next morning, the doctor came in to explain to me more about what they found and what to expect.  She let me know that I might not be able to balance or walk for a few weeks or even months, and that they would schedule a physical therapist to come in to do some tests.

That was very shocking to hear.  My first thoughts were disbelief and doubt.  I could feel my legs and toes.  I could move everything.  And, I was walking just fine the day before.  As soon as the doctor left the room, I decided to try and get off the bed and at least stand.  I was connected to an IV and monitors, and I moved my legs out of bed and onto the floor.  As I put my body weight on my legs, I immediately felt the lack of balance and control.  I could feel the ground and my legs, but everything felt different.  I couldn’t balance, and definitely couldn’t walk, so I quickly backed myself into bed.  I did this a few more times throughout the morning, still in disbelief.  It was clear each time that it wasn’t going to happen, even when I tried to use the IV stand to balance myself.

The hospital staff was great and I appreciate everything they were doing, but by day 2, I wanted out of there!  I was stuck in the bed, on meds, but had a lot of neck and head pain in the area of the stroke.  Still no visitors or family, limited to a liquid diet, and using a bed pan since I couldn’t stand or walk to the bathroom. The nurse and a physical therapist came in and asked if I felt like I could try to stand up.  I was ready to try again, and with their help, I was able to get off the bed.  I only stood up for a few seconds before I felt the vertigo return and immediately started to vomit.  I didn’t expect that. They got me right back into the bed and said I did “a good job,” but that didn’t make any sense to me and I felt pretty depressed.

It all made for a weird frame of mind.  I was in disbelief and simultaneously grateful to be alive.  I wanted to see my wife and family, but worried how dependent I was going to be on them.  I’m 45, and my daughter is 3.  I knew I was going to be an “old Dad,” but I didn’t think it would be like this.

Throughout the rest of the day, I continued to try to stand, even if it meant just leaning against the bed.  By early evening I asked if I could try to walk to and use the restroom.  I really didn’t want to have to use the bedpan!  A nurse helped me up, and by using the IV hanger to balance, I was able to shuffle across the hospital room.  Success!  This felt like a big win.  The rest of the night was back to trying to stand and shuffle around the bed, and arranging pillows to try to get comfortable with the head and neck pain.

Sometime around my fourth day in the hospital, I started to understand how lucky I was.  After a number of Google searches and reading some stroke stories, I realized that it could be much worse.  I was able to stand and walk with the IV stand over to the restroom again.  When the physical therapist heard that I had walked to the restroom, she asked if I thought I could walk in the hallway.  And we did!  It was a strange feeling to put so much effort into doing something I used to do without thinking about it.  She said I was doing great and recovering fast, all good signs that the damage wasn’t too bad.  I spent the rest of that day in and out of bed, walking the hallway, and asking when I could leave.  I wanted to get home to see my family, shower, and sleep in my own bed.

After another restless night of head and neck pain, as well as the beeps and alarms from hospital equipment, it looked like I might get to go home on day 5.  I just needed the final ok from the doctor and a ride home.  I was so happy to see my wife and daughter later that day and ready to start my recovery back at home.

I spent the next couple of weeks at home trying to get my balance back.  I never fell down, but there were several times that I would lose my balance going down stairs or while standing up. Sometimes I felt dizzy or unbalanced doing “normal” things like bending down to tie my shoe or closing my eyes to rinse in the shower.  Even standing up after sitting for a while felt different. And little things took more effort.  I was forced to stay home from work by my family and co-workers, but I really wanted to get back.

Life lessons learned

I need to take better care of myself!  Drink water.  Eat better.  Exercise.  These things sound easy and simple, but I still struggle with them.  I didn’t think my lifestyle was “unhealthy.”  I’m not a heavy drinker—maybe a drink or two a month.  I don’t smoke.  And, I avoid carbs/sugar as much as possible.  My wife is vegetarian, so I eat less meat than I used to.  In the past, I didn’t track how much water I had daily, and there were probably a lot of days with no water.  I thought iced tea and coffee “counted.”   My daily routine would be coffee (or two) in the morning, large (venti) iced tea during the day, and maybe a diet coke or iced tea at night.  Now, I make sure to drink at least 6 full glasses of water throughout the day.

These days I find myself with a bit of survivor’s guilt because I recovered quickly.  I know from others’ stories how bad it can be and the lasting effects a stroke can have.  When Deb asked to Interview me, I didn’t really feel like I had a story to tell.  Honestly, I don’t feel like a real stroke survivor.  I even had a second opinion to see if it may have been something else.  But, when I was looking for information about recovery, most of the stories didn’t leave me with much hope.  I suppose my story of a fairly quick recovery could be inspiring for someone else.  And, I truly am grateful.


Next steps on your journey

I’m not sure what comes next for me.  Overall, I feel like I’m back to normal.  It’s only been five months since my stroke, and I do get nervous when I get a headache or lose my balance.  It was a scary experience, and since they don’t have a clear reason for why I had a stroke, it remains a bit worrisome.  But, I’m trying to take better care of myself and appreciating the return to normal with my family.

Danny Halvorson is a Creative Director working in the heart of Silicon Valley. For more than 14 years, Danny has led the creative team at WebEnertia, developing websites and digital experiences for some of the biggest B2B companies around. In his free time, Danny focuses on time with his wife and young daughter and getting out to drive and explore California.