His Biggest Obstacle Yet: A Stroke

Stroke Survivor Jason Heiser participates in a Spartan Challenge
Jason Heiser, 34, participates in a Spartan Race

Construction superintendent Jason Heiser, 34, loves to be active. He runs at least twice a week, lifts weights regularly, plays softball and participates in racing competitions featuring extreme obstacles with names such as “Ladder to Hell.” He eats healthy food to facilitate all that exercise.

So it came as a big shock to Heiser and his loved ones when he faced his biggest challenge yet in June: a stroke.

An Unexpected Emergency

It all started with a headache one evening.

“I got a headache at night and my vision started getting a little blurry, but I didn’t really think too much about it,” Heiser says. “I don’t get them often, so I just went to sleep.”

He woke up the next morning, and although the headache lingered, he went to his job in construction management. When he got there, he asked a co-worker for a Tylenol in hopes it would help alleviate his headache.

A few hours later, he lost balance suddenly.

“The whole left side of my body went limp. I was just leaning on this railing and I just started to fall,” Heiser says.

A couple of Heiser’s co-workers were able to catch him and called 911.

“One of the guys that was nearby was the guy I had asked for Tylenol, so he kind of knew something weird was going on,” Heiser says.

Heiser kept saying he felt fine and that he just had a headache, but his co-workers insisted he go to the hospital.

And it’s a good thing they did; Heiser was having a stroke.

How a Stroke Impacts the Brain

A stroke is a sudden interruption of your body’s blood supply to the brain. There are two main types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Most strokes are ischemic, caused by a blockage of a blood vessel. The blockage doesn’t allow nutrients such as oxygen and glucose to get to the brain, which causes brain cells to die.

A rupture of a blood vessel causes hemorrhagic strokes. The rupture can be very small within the brain tissue, which forces blood into the tissue, or an aneurysm, a weakened area in an artery, can rupture and pool blood into the space outside the brain.

Because each part of the brain controls certain functions, the results of a stroke will differ depending on which part of the brain is damaged.

Jason Heiser, 34, participates in an obstacle course race
Jason Heiser, 34, participates in an Spartan obstacle course race

Heiser learned later that a blocked right carotid artery caused his stroke. Carotid arteries are major blood vessels in your neck that supply blood to the brain, neck and face. When the artery is blocked, it disrupts the normal flow of blood to your brain.

“So my carotid artery had apparently split in a past sports injury and naturally formed a blood clot to close the gap. After doing a kettlebell workout the night before, something caused a blood clot to break away and essentially cut off the blood flow,” Heiser says. “Luckily, they got me to (UNC) Rex really quickly and before anything kind of major happened, rushed me into the emergency room and got my blood clots out.”

Heiser’s neurosurgeon, Omar Kass-Hout, MD, medical director of stroke and interventional neurology at UNC Rex Healthcare, performed a thrombectomy, which is a surgical procedure used to remove blood clots from arteries and veins.

Time Is Brain

Once a stroke occurs, neurons—brain cells in charge of transmitting signals to the body—start dying. The types of neurons affected by a stroke, and therefore the parts of the body affected, are dependent on where in the brain it happens. The extent of damage depends on how long the stroke lasts.

Depending on the severity of the stroke, you can begin to see the effect of these damaged neurons in a person’s behavior almost immediately.

“I’m lucky—my job is at NC State, which is not far from Rex, and my co-workers called the ambulance so quickly, so I was at the hospital so quick and that was obviously the blessing,” Heiser says.

What to Do for Signs of Stroke: Seek Help Fast

If you or someone you’re with is experiencing signs of a stroke, every moment counts, and it is critical to get emergency medical care fast.

Signs of a stroke include:

  • Speech problems (slurred speech, inability to understand or produce language)
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Vision issues (double vision, inability to see or process what you’re seeing)
  • Impairment of motor activity, such as the ability to walk normally
  • Confusion

Recovering from a Stroke

Stroke survivor and UNC REX patient Jason Heiser looks forward to new challenges once races resume.
Stroke survivor and UNC REX patient Jason Heiser looks forward to new challenges once races resume.

Heiser spent eight days in the hospital and was in a rehab program for a month. During rehab, he worked with physical, speech and occupational therapists to correct his left side inattention—the last deficit after recovering from being temporarily paralyzed for the first three days after the incident. This had hindered his walking, as well as his visual perception.

“I got released from physical therapy within a couple of weeks, and then I kept going to speech therapy for a little bit longer for cognition and critical-thinking-type stuff,” Heiser says.

He returned to work two months after his stroke.

“I was glad to get back to work because I get bored at home not doing anything,” Heiser says.

Today, six months after his stroke, Heiser is back to working out regularly and hopes to participate in an obstacle course racing competition whenever they are offered again. He is proof that no matter how young and healthy, a stroke can happen to anyone.

“I am so grateful my co-workers didn’t listen to me and insisted on calling 911,” Heiser says. “And it’s awesome that I was in a position where I could go to UNC Rex, one of the best hospitals there is for this type of incident. The people at Rex saved my life.”

If you or someone near you is experiencing stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to prevent a stroke. If you don’t have a doctor, find one near you.