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My husband had a stroke, here is what I learned…

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Alisia Essig’s husband was just 37-years-old when he had his stroke, here she shares the story of the day of the stroke and the lifestyle changes they have made since.

Racing into the ER, I was terrified. Earlier my husband called to tell me he was on his way to the hospital because something was terribly wrong, and he was having double vision. Not knowing what to expect, I opened the door to the ER and scanned the room to find my 37-year-old husband in a wheelchair, slumped over, one eye drooping unnaturally. He looked like he had aged 50 years. I could tell immediately that he was having a stroke.

How was this happening? He was a busy young patent lawyer working in Washington, DC. We had six young kids, including twin 8-month-old baby boys. And yet, here my husband was in a wheelchair struggling to look at me because the stroke was affecting his vision.

It had been a day like any other. My husband woke up early and went straight to work. He had been sitting in his office typing on his computer when all the sudden he started seeing double. He also felt a little off. He knew something serious was going on but didn’t know what. He instantly thought, “I don’t want to die alone in my office, so maybe I should go talk to someone.”

He got up, fumbled for the door, and stepped out to his assistant’s desk. She looked up quizzically as he just stood there leaning on her desk and asked if he was ok. My husband responded, “I don’t think so. I can’t see very well. There is something wrong with my eyesight.” She immediately called 911 and had him sit down.

The EMTs arrived at the office and examined him. They were adamant that he was not having a stroke. They told him that he merely had low blood sugar, so they gave him a soda, and told him he should be fine in a little bit. They convinced him and his coworkers that it was nothing serious, but that if he insisted they would take him to the hospital. Given their confidence in his well being, my husband opted to call me at home and have me take him to the hospital. When I didn’t answer the phone, one of his coworkers drove him to the ER.

At the ER, they treated him like everyone else until the receptionist asked him to sign some paperwork and he exasperatedly told her that he could not see the paperwork to sign it, and then stumbled to a chair. While he was admitted soon afterwards, we waited for hours to be seen by a neurologist.

After an inconclusive CAT scan and MRI, the neurologist diagnosed my husband as having a transient ischemic attack (TIA) with a prognosis that everything would return to normal within 24-48 hours. That didn’t happen. One week later, with his double vision persisting, the doctor changed the diagnosis to a stroke with no timeline or guarantee that things would improve. The doctor admitted that strokes are difficult. Some strokes are hard to diagnose and doctors have to wait to see if the symptoms remain after 24-48 hours. In addition, healing from a stroke is a complete unknown. Some people heal in a few months, others years, and yet others never fully recuperate.

With the diagnosis, I knew our life would be different, and my mind flooded with questions: Would my husband have double vision forever? How drastically was this going to affect our normal day-to-day lives? I also couldn’t help but have flashbacks to when my dad had a heart attack at the age of 55 and died before I had a chance to say goodbye.

Alisia and her husband.

The doctors continued to run multiple tests to understand why my young, seemingly healthy husband had suffered a stroke. One question I had for the neurologist was if the stroke was caused by stress—as a father to six kids, a bishop in our church, and a busy lawyer, my husband had a lot to be stressed about. But the neurologist said his stroke was not caused by stress and that he believed there was something more serious going on. The doctor ordered multiple tests, but everything came back negative: there was no hole in his heart, no genetic predisposition, no heart arrhythmia, or anything else. They also didn’t have any answers for when or if his vision would return to normal.

The only direction we were given was a piece of paper that said from now on my husband should follow a heart-healthy diet by avoiding trans fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol and by increasing his intake of fibre. At the time, I had no idea how to avoid trans fat or saturated fat. And the first thing that popped into my mind to add more fibre to our diet was Fibre One bars. The whole experience was confusing and overwhelming.

When my dad died, we didn’t get a warning. It was his one and only heart attack. After he passed, I remember wishing so badly that he would have been given a warning heart attack and a chance to make changes. I think of my dad every day and I still miss him very much. I was willing to do everything in my power to minimise further risks to my husband’s health. I didn’t want to lose my husband like I had lost my father. 

In my research after my husband’s stroke, I learned that seven of the ten leading causes of death are linked to diet, with the number one killer being heart disease. But I also learned that doesn’t have to be the case. I didn’t want my spouse to be another statistic. I was willing to make any dietary change necessary to avoid more strokes in the future and to help my husband’s vision.

My husband and I were pretty naive in thinking that his vision would magically get back to normal overnight. But that wasn’t the case. When we left the hospital we were not sent to a rehabilitation facility. We just had to follow up with a neuro-ophthalmologist. Because my husband couldn’t see normally, I had to drive him to all his appointments. Which also meant that I had to get a babysitter (4 out of our 6 kids were still home and not in school yet).

The neuro-ophthalmologist didn’t have any answers for us either. He couldn’t explain why this happened or when or IF he would get his vision back. He just said that because my husband was so young, his symptoms would most likely improve, but he couldn’t promise anything.

After the stroke, my husband took a month off of work. He was tired and slept a lot. Having double vision was mentally exhausting. He wore a patch most of the time to make it manageable. He kept it lighthearted, and would joke that to him we didn’t have twins, we had quadruplets!

After a month my husband went back to work part time. But it was still really hard for him. He was slow, and would get headaches trying to see out of one eye for so long. 

During this time I dove deep into the research about strokes. I wanted to know what exactly had been going on inside my husband’s body to cause a blood clot. I also wanted to know how eating a “heart healthy” diet would reduce his risk. And I wanted to do everything in my power to help him get his vision back. There was a lot of prayer and fasting at this time, and I felt directed to change our eating patterns to be more plant focused.  

After diving deep into the research on diets and longevity and seeing past the current health trends and fads, I learned that eating meat sparingly and eating more whole foods and plants is the best thing you can do to prevent chronic disease. Unlike medications, there isn’t one kind of diet for optimal liver function and a different diet to prevent strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. A heart-healthy diet is also a brain-healthy diet and a lung-healthy diet. The plant-based diet is the same diet that helps prevent cancer and may also help prevent type 2 diabetes and most causes of death on the top ten list.   

Our family stopped eating meat and animal products as often as we used to. By doing so, we avoid trans fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and have significantly increased our fibre intake just like the doctors recommended. We now base our meals on vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and we add wholesome herbs for flavour. I have seen so many good things come to us from this change. My husband’s important health numbers—cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, etc.—have gone down. 

After five months, my husband’s vision cleared up—which we both consider a miracle. It started slowly. Like looking through a fish tank with the water slowly draining out the bottom, he began to see normally at the upper edges of his vision, but everything below was still double. Slowly the line of normal vision went down lower and lower until about five months later, he looked down and could see that the double vision was completely gone. 

After changing out the food we ate as a family and seeing all the benefits that came to our health because of this, I decided to go back to school and become a nutritionist so I could help others going through similar health trauma seek healing and support through food. 

Incidence of strokes will also impact your brain’s longevity, that is why pairing diet in the healing process is key. With every meal you eat you either help or hinder your brain. In fact, food has a much greater impact on your brain than your other organs because this 3-pound organ can consume more than 25 percent of the body’s energy. When we fail to nourish our bodies properly, we also fail to nourish our energy hog of a brain. 

Just like with cardiovascular disease, a diet predominantly based on animal-based foods will be potentially problematic for those who are concerned about their risk of stroke. Animal-based products have more of the nutrients that are potentially contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and stroke while not having as many nutrients that can be protective against these conditions.  

Nutrition has many layers, and if we focus too much on taking out “bad” foods and not enough on putting in “good” foods, we can miss the greater picture. 

Consuming adequate fibre (between 20 to 35 g daily) has been linked to lowering cholesterol and heart disease risk as well as helping control your blood sugars and promoting gut health. Fibre, soluble and insoluble types, are fermented by the bacteria found in the human gut. They break them down into short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, preserve immune functioning and can help your brain.

Fibre comes from plants. All plants contain fibre, that is why it is key to be eating more whole plant foods. Fibre can stimulate growth of the good bacteria and limit the more harmful bacteria in our gut. Since the gut is closely connected to the brain, a happy gut that is fed its favourite food of fibre is more likely to have a positive effect on mood and behaviour. 

Since my husband’s stroke in 2019 he hasn’t had any side effects or recurrences. We feel grateful everyday that he has recovered completely. We feel like it was a “warning” stroke and have done everything in our power to prevent it from happening again so that he can live a long and healthy life.

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