It took a stroke for Tyree Russell to take his health seriously.

The wholesale car salesman from Chesapeake, Virginia, watched several relatives struggle with heart disease, but didn’t realize a family history could increase his risks.

So when he was diagnosed with high blood pressure at age 26, he did not take the medication his doctor prescribed. He wasn’t overweight and played basketball every day and figured that was enough.

“I thought I was invincible,” Russell said.

A decade later, a stressful job that required a lot of travel and a diet heavy in high-sodium and fatty foods caught up with him. He packed on more than 30 pounds. He also developed high cholesterol and Type-2 diabetes, although he didn’t know it at the time.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” he said.

Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of disability, according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for stroke, and rates among African-Americans are among the highest of any population in the world. Russell exemplifies the need for stroke education, which is part of the goal of American Stroke Month this May.

On Jan. 14, 2011, Russell woke up in the middle the night to use the bathroom, but suddenly he felt lightheaded and weak and clutched the bathroom counter for support as he began to fall.

He called to his girlfriend to call an ambulance and rested on his bed as he waited for help to arrive.

Russell, now 40, doesn’t remember much after he arrived at the hospital, and didn’t learn until a few days later that he’d had an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a clot or a mass block a blood vessel, cutting off blood flow to the brain.

His stroke was complicated by dangerously high blood pressure, which doctors struggled to get under control. Russell spent 17 days in intensive care and was released home after 41 days in the hospital, paralyzed and unable to see or hear clearly on the right side.246444_278326985599115_1409031546_n

He was prescribed more than a dozen medications to take, including blood thinners, and drugs to control blood pressure, and his previously undiagnosed high cholesterol and diabetes.

Doctors at the hospital recommended physical and occupational therapy for Russell to regain his strength and mobility. But without insurance, he couldn’t afford the therapy sessions.

At home, and using a wheelchair, Russell grappled with depression. The doctors had told him it could take months or years to recover from a stroke. They said some people never recover.

“I’m not the type of person who likes people to do things for me and now I had to have someone to help me cook, clean and bathe,” he said.

When a friend offered to touch up the paint to cover the wheelchair scuffs on the walls, Russell decided he’d had enough. He began working his way to the garage using a walker to get supplies to do it himself.

It was the motivation he needed to find a way to regain his independence and recover his strength.  1397233_10201006605028943_1321112349_o

The trip, which would normally take less than a minute, took him a half hour and left Russell exhausted. But he was motivated to do whatever he could to regain his independence.

He reached out to family and friends for advice on building strength and improving his health through diet.

He started using his walker to go to the mailbox at the curb, adding distance slowly as he built strength. Russell also made big changes to his diet, swapping fast food and red meat for lean meats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

By October, more than 10 months after his stroke, Russell had lost 35 pounds and could walk for miles, although he still had a significant limp.

Russell had made important physical gains, but still struggled with blurred vision, speech, balance and use of his right hand.  He enrolled in the local community college in August 2012, in an effort to challenge his brain, force him to use his right hand more and speak in front of others.

11134075_10204143769616097_4912864575269225335_oIn researching services for a class assignment, Russell learned about a stroke support group and the American Heart Association. Sharing his story and meeting other stroke survivors motivated him to keep working toward his goal and feel grateful for what he had achieved.

Russell, who will earn his associate’s degree this spring and transfer to Old Dominion University in the fall, has also found a new calling in social services. He particularly wants to help educate others on how important diet and exercise is for health, a message he didn’t hear when he was younger.

“No one told me not to eat all those unhealthy foods I was eating, so I didn’t even think about it,” he said.

Eighty percent of strokes are preventable, and lifestyle factors, including diet, exercise and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar, play an important role in lowering risks.

11080686_10204046321019943_5678828137022943670_oToday, Russell’s lifestyle changes have enabled doctors to eliminate all but one of his medications. He checks his blood pressure twice daily to watch for any changes.

He continues to exercise and build strength, though his right side is still weakened by the stroke.

“I still have a slight limp, but most people wouldn’t notice it,” he said.

Russell has been working as an intern for AHA since 2014, helping develop community programs and sharing his story at local events.

“Having a stroke really brought me back down to life,” he said. “I want to be an inspiration to others and show them that they can change their lives.”