Aboard the airplane carrying him from Billings, Montana, to a hospital in Denver, doctor-turned-patient Mike Willis began a curious routine. Every few minutes, he lifted his right arm and thumped his chest.
“You OK?” the flight nurse said.
“Just checking to see if I’m alive,” Mike said.
Mike understood his life was in jeopardy. From the moment his wife told the 911 dispatcher, “He could be having a stroke.” He also knew that if he survived his quality of life would never be the same.
Six years later, Mike now calls home an assisted-living facility in Charleston, South Carolina. He’s divorced. Seeing his three kids requires a 15-minute Uber ride.
But why focus on what’s lost? Mike doesn’t.
He’d rather talk about how he advanced from a wheelchair to walking long stretches with a cane to taking steps on his own.
The former guitarist loves telling about learning to play jazz on the piano with only his right hand.
And the retired orthopedic surgeon is especially proud of the outlet he’s found for his medical expertise: mentoring.
Although his life has been altered by stroke – the No. 5 killer of Americans and a leading cause of adult disability – it’s important for survivors and their loved ones to know that stroke is not an end. As Dr. Mike Willis can attest, it can also spark a new beginning.
Appreciating what Mike lost on June 1, 2013, requires knowing what he had when he woke up that morning.
He and his wife, a pharmacist, worked at the same hospital. They’d lived in Billings for 11 years. Their kids were 7, 5 and 4.
A typical weekend involved loading up the truck on a Friday afternoon and heading to a rented cabin or condo. In the winter, they skied. In the summer, they rafted, hiked and fished.
He also was an avid cyclist.
A year before, he pedaled nearly 500 miles during the weeklong Cycle Oregon trek. A month before, he spent four days riding across mountains in New Mexico with a fellow surgeon. A week before, he and another buddy did a 100-mile road race in Salt Lake City.
In the days since the race, he battled a cold and cough. The day before, he noticed some shimmering in his left eye.
On the pivotal morning, Mike walked across his kitchen, felt wobbly and dropped to his right knee. When he spoke, the words came out slurred.
His wife tried helping him stand but couldn’t. She eased him onto the ground and dialed 911.
An ambulance took Mike to the hospital where he and his wife worked.
Although a clot blocked blood flow on the right side of his brain, Mike understood what was happening. He also found comfort in knowing which doctors and nurses would soon be caring for him.
The lead neurosurgeon, however, decided that rather than trying a risky surgery, Mike would be better served at a hospital in Denver.
Mike spent the two-hour flight essentially saying goodbye to the man he’d been. His mind played a highlight film: wading across a wide river fishing for steelhead, long bike rides over steep mountains, rafting and skiing with his kids.
Between each scene, he thumped his chest.
In many cases, a drug provided within the first three hours can bust the clot. In Mike’s case, it didn’t.
Another option is a procedure called a thrombectomy to pluck out the clot. The doctors in Billings balked, fearing the clot would shatter and flood his brain with smaller clots. At Swedish Hospital in Denver, doctors agreed.
Days later, Mike’s brain began to swell. Doctors removed a piece of skull to create room.
The clot eventually resolved, with blood flow establishing an alternate route through his brain.
The damage was done, though. He’d suffered a permanent brain injury and would soon move into an adjacent rehabilitation hospital to build his new life.
Rehab began with Mike discovering his left side was too weak for him to stand. Then he was told a series of numbers and asked to repeat them all. He couldn’t. Shown a sheet of numbers and letters, he couldn’t draw a line from A to B to C to D.
The physical limitation didn’t surprise him. The thinking problems did.
Mike always thought he could think his way out of any problem. Whether it was a test in school, a blown tire while cycling or a middle-of-the-night surgery with no apparent way to reconstruct a gruesome fracture, he always had a solution – usually the right one.
Now that identity was gone. For all the awareness he’d had about his condition, now he had to accept that his brain wasn’t the same.
He wanted to punch a wall. His brains and limbs couldn’t make it happen, ratcheting up his rage.
Good thing he was at a facility that specializes in cases like his.
Therapists at Craig Hospital framed activities as challenges. A good one involved plotting his schedule.
Asked where to start, Mike knew to say Monday. But he didn’t know how to find Monday on his iPhone’s calendar.
Locating the calendar app was a struggle, too. As was creating a new event.
Mike learned the small strategies that added up to him being on time for everything from therapies to a cookout for patients. He took pride in data entry leading to attending a hamburger dinner with his new pals.
“That’s survivorship,” he said.
The achievement synched with an analogy from a therapist: Although his body’s hard drive crashed, it still contained plenty of information, with more space available. It just had to be accessed in a different way.
During rehab, he returned to Swedish Hospital to have the missing portion of his skull reattached.
The next morning, his neurosurgeon visited his room.
“Watch this,” Mike said, and lifted his left leg.
The surgeon laughed and said it occasionally happens following the reconstruction.
Another day, Mike was doing a balance exercise and started to fall.
He instinctively put all his weight on his damaged left leg. It worked; he stood.
As he celebrated, the therapist confessed, “That’s what that challenge was all about.”
Back in Billings, Mike couldn’t work or enjoy his outdoor hobbies.
He had little reason to stay, especially once he divorced and his ex-wife and kids moved to the Charleston area. So he followed them, moving into a facility that’s become a great source for reinvention.
Guided by a physical therapist, he’s learned to walk up to a half mile with the cane. He goes without it in shorter stretches.
An occupational therapist connected him with a music teacher who wrote arrangements for one-handed piano players. Mike became fascinated with music theory, so his teacher brings complex challenges each week.
Another therapist recommended a guide to take him fly fishing. Mike looks forward to hauling in redfish with lures he’s tied using only his right hand.
His proudest accomplishment is passing on the knowledge acquired over 13 years as a surgeon.
Through a friend who teaches at the University of New Mexico, where Mike trained, he began doing video chats with residents.
They’ve gone from Q-and-A sessions to more practical talks. A student describes a thorny situation, and Mike counters with what he would’ve done. When possible, he offers a similar case he faced.
“I can’t do surgery anymore, but I can pass on what I know to young, soon-to-be-orthopedic surgeons,” he said. “I want to throw something back into the pot I took from.”
He enjoys it so much that he’d like to find a program in Charleston where he could have a similar arrangement, only in person.
Mike still has days when he feels like he’s failing in his recovery – when this guy who used to think his way out of every jam wonders, “If I set my mind to being able to walk on my own, why can’t I?”
Sometimes the lack of interaction with his kids takes a toll, too.
“I can’t force myself not to be depressed,” he said. “But I can say I’m going to be productive today.”
He breaks his funk by getting active – making his bed, then looking for something to do next, such as laundry. Focusing on one thing at a time settles his active mind.
Mike also refuses to use the term “my stroke.”
“I don’t own it,” he said. “It doesn’t own me.”
Sometimes, he talks to stroke, saying, “You’re not going to win.”
He talks to his kids about going skiing again, always saying when not if.
He’s also talked to his brother about a fishing trip in Canada that involves “a big level of risk.”
“I don’t perceive the risk as a deterrent,” he said. “In fact, I see facing the risk as its own reward.”