By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Former NBA player Juaquin Hawkins was finishing a series of road games with his basketball team in Australia when he reached to turn on the faucet and the finger tips on his right hand began to tingle, a feeling that quickly ran up his arm.
“I thought that my arm was numb from sleeping on it,” said Hawkins of the morning of Jan. 1, 2008. “But then I got this throbbing headache, like someone was hitting me with a bat.”
He felt nauseated and his vision blurred, so he returned to bed, thinking maybe he just needed to lie down. Instead, the symptoms worsened and his right arm wouldn’t move at all. He decided to go look at himself in the mirror and everything looked normal, until he tried smiling and saw the right side of his face droop.
“I was so terrified, that I just looked away,” he said. “If the idea of a stroke came into my head, I immediately pushed it away. I was a 34-year-old professional athlete. I thought strokes were something only the elderly experienced.”
Hawkins’ roommate had already left for breakfast with the rest of the team. During this time, Hawkins, in the room by himself, decided to revisit the mirror to see if his face was still disfigured. Taking one step from the bed he immediately crashed to the floor. The entire right side now had no feeling. He found a way to drag himself to the door to retrieve some help — but after opening the door he found the hallway empty.
He began to panic.
“I knew something was really wrong and was just trying to brace myself for whatever was going to happen next,” he said.
Hawkins could barely make out the word “doctor” by the time his roommate returned. But when the team masseuse arrived, the feeling in Hawkins’ right side had returned. Very uncomfortable and after repeatedly asking to be taken to a doctor, the team officials didn’t realize the urgency and insisted he get to the airport and accompany the team on the last flight of the day to the next game.
During the two-leg flight, Hawkins felt agitated. His speech stuttered, he had a throbbing headache and felt weak. After checking into the team hotel, he was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with dehydration with no additional testing done. He was given intravenous fluids and discharged after a few hours.
The next day when he woke up, he began to feel nauseated again and was unable to hear out of his right ear. Eventually the team officials were able to take him back to the hospital where a CT scan showed bleeding in his brain.
Hawkins was shocked when the doctors told him that he had suffered an ischemic stroke and may never play basketball again.
“I just said, ‘I can’t have a stroke, I’m a professional athlete and I have a game tonight,’” he said.
Hawkins’ diagnosis came 27 hours after his first symptoms appeared. It was too late for the clot-busting medication tissue plasmogen activator. He was given anti-clotting medication and he stayed in the hospital for a week. During that time, his speech and cognition became impaired.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between a circle and a triangle, or read a sentence,” he said.
While he didn’t lose the ability to walk, he felt weak and struggled to maintain stamina.
Hawkins finished his season off the court and would spend the next three months undergoing therapy to recover his speech and memory, as he continued to stutter and experience aphasia for almost three years. He’d confuse his daughters’ names at times and had difficulty maintaining a conversation.
“It was embarrassing for me, so I found myself just not talking, shaking my head or nodding instead,” he said. “I was always worried I’d say the wrong thing.”
He also experienced severe depression and went into a financial crisis after not being employed for quite some time. That caused him to lose his home. He moved his family between hotels and the homes of friends and relatives before getting back on his feet.
After some time, Hawkins did return to the court prematurely but after a year he decided to officially retire. His 14-year career had included teams in five countries. In the NBA, he played briefly with the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors during preseason training before joining the Houston Rockets during the 2002-2003 season.
He found a new path as a coach, working with area schools to provide athletic and mentoring programs. He also started Hawk Hoops, a youth mentoring and basketball program teaching players the fundamentals of basketball and to play in tournaments locally and nationally. His teams competed earlier this year in the Annual Mercadel/Hawk Hoops stroke awareness tournament. Earlier this month, they played in the AVAC Hoyas and West Coast Power Alliance’s Stroke Awareness Basketball Tournament in Seal Beach, California.
At times, Hawkins will speak to his players, their families and outside organizations about his stroke experience.
“It’s a big part of my life now,” he said. “It made me a better person and gave me an experience that I can use to educate other people on how to deal with stroke or hardship in general.”
In addition to Hawk Hoops, Hawkins is a paid motivational speaker. He also published a book about his experiences called “A Stroke of Grace.”
Over the last several years, Hawkins has shared his story in media interviews, volunteering as an American Stroke Association national Power to End Stroke ambassador in all communities, but with a special devotion to black communities.
Blacks have almost twice the risk of first-ever strokes compared to whites, and experience higher death rates due to stroke.
In 2010, Hawkins received a “Power Award” from the ASA for the volunteer work he’s done, both nationally and throughout Southern California.
“Raising awareness is very powerful for me,” he said. “Every time I talk to someone who has had a stroke, we connect immediately. I feel so grateful that I can give inspiration to others to keep working toward recovery.”
Doctors aren’t sure why Hawkins had the stroke. He did not have a family history or any risk factors.
Today, he lives near San Bernardino, California. He continues to take a daily aspirin and tries to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating the right foods.
Now, 42, he still experiences some effects from his stroke. His right side gets colder than his left, and he can’t drive more than 45 minutes without his right leg feeling like it’s falling asleep.