Going the distance: Good news, good vibes help runner regain footing after stroke
Months after dragging himself across a hotel room floor to phone for help, Kyle Reger, 41, has diligently worked his way toward recovery from a stroke.
That meant weeks in a hospital bed, months of rehabilitation and -- particularly hard for a lifelong athlete and runner who has finished marathons -- having to depend on others for things like car rides as he struggled to regain the use of his left side.
Throughout his recovery, Reger was bolstered by the support of his family and friends, his hometown of Cazenovia and his employer, and he learned a new appreciation for the little things, like being able to pick up and use a pepper shaker.
Further, some long-awaited good news arrived during his rehabilitation. Reger and his wife, Marla Velky-Reger, were told that their son Max, a first-grader, is now considered cancer free.
Reger, who travels the Northeast for his sales job, was alone in a Massachusetts hotel room on Sept. 4 when he awoke with a calf cramp in the wee hours of the morning. He had run the night before.
“I remember trying to flex my toe, to prevent it from continuing, and I couldn‘t flex my toe, and I just thought it was odd,” Reger said. Then he noticed his left side felt asleep, and he tried to jump out of bed to shake it out but crashed onto the floor instead.
It finally dawned on him: He was having a stroke.
He managed to drag himself to the phone and call for help.
He was admitted to Springfield‘s Baystate Medical Center, with a bleed in his brain, a hemorrhagic stroke. Six days later, he was transferred to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, where he stayed about three weeks.
“I don‘t think I could move anything when I arrived at Upstate,” he says, but in the months of outpatient rehabilitation that followed – working with parallel bars, bikes and other equipment – he has been relearning how to use his left hand, arm and leg.
From the thrill of watching his thumb move a tiny bit to walking (at first with a cane) to being able to drive a car again in February, he estimates his abilities have come back about 90 percent, enough to play the piano.
His doctors concur.
“Having a positive attitude and an active lifestyle prior to his stroke have certainly helped him progress,” says Shernaz Hurlong, DO, the physician overseeing Reger‘s rehabilitation.
“He made an excellent recovery in part because of his good health and excellent attitude, but also because he received expert care at the hospitals he was taken to. This gave his brain the best possible chance to heal itself. He's well on his way to a full recovery,” agrees Lawrence Chin, MD, Upstate‘s chairman of neurosurgery. Reger‘s stroke resolved itself and did not require surgery.
Friends, neighbors and former college soccer teammates held fundraisers to defray his medical costs, brought meals, drove him to appointments and cheered him on.
His company hired a retiree to help cover his job, and Reger returned to work part time in December, then full time in February. Being able to drive again was “a huge gain to my mental health” he says, both restoring his independence and ability to work and relieving some of the strain on his wife.
The couple has two sons, Jackson, 3, and Max, 7, who was diagnosed with Wilms‘ tumor, a kidney cancer, at 16 months and underwent chemotherapy, the removal of a kidney and radiation treatments. Max recently achieved “survivor” status, meaning he has been free of cancer for five years.
Max ran the Chilly Chili 5K, a January race in Cazenovia, then returned to walk the route alongside his father, who was determined to finish the course, and did.
Reger hopes to be able to run again by the end of summer and to do a marathon again someday. He also considers himself blessed for the support and insights his stroke revealed.
What is a stroke?
Stroke occurs when a blood vessel to the brain either bursts or is blocked, thus killing brain cells. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the U.S. All strokes and TIAs (see below) should be treated as emergencies with immediate attention.
Ischemic strokes occur when clots block the flow of blood to the brain. They account for about 87 percent of all strokes.
The other 13 percent are hemorrhagic strokes, which occur when a blood vessel in the brain breaks, resulting in blood seepage and damage to brain cells.
A transient ischemic attack, or TIA, sometimes called a “mini-stroke,” is temporary, often lasting only a minute or more and usually leaving no lasting damage.
Source: American Heart Association/American Stroke Association
This article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Upstate Health magazine Hear interviews about various aspects of stroke -- how to recognize one; how today's treatment is rapid and minimally invasive; the surgical options; the relationship to atrial fibrillation; support groups; and how emergency response is coordinated throughout the region.