Sherry recommended that Ryan go see the nurse. Meantime, Sherry headed to the school, thinking Ryan – who at 15 already had spent years battling migraines – might be having a headache with new symptoms and could need to be treated at a hospital.
When Sherry arrived, Ryan wasn’t in the nurse’s office. A secretary called his classroom to track him down. As they walked out, she asked Ryan why he was still there.
“I didn’t know how to tell the teacher that I needed to leave,” he said.
As they continued to walk, Ryan said his arm was numb and he felt confused. She made him stop and look at her.
“When he talked to me, he couldn’t focus on my face. He would look to the side of me. That really started to scare me,” she said. “That’s when I knew there was something more to what was going on.”
During the 20-minute ride to the children’s hospital, Ryan’s speech became garbled. At the hospital, he stopped speaking altogether. Sherry handed him her cell phone in hopes that he would text his thoughts.
He tried. But he couldn’t. In frustration, he threw the phone down.
An MRI showed Ryan was having a stroke.
Doctors started Ryan on a clot-busting medicine and told his mom he needed to be flown by helicopter ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Hospital. A stroke team awaited them, and soon discovered the clot wouldn’t dissolve. So doctors performed a procedure to remove it.
All this happened Oct. 11, 2012. Ryan and his mom were told it would be at least six months to a year before he would be able to speak clearly. As for what other effects the stroke had, only time would tell.
Sherry spent that night in her son’s room, falling asleep with the TV tuned to ESPN. At 3 a.m., she heard the familiar SportsCenter tone, “Da nah nah, da nah nah.”
“Do you know the Steelers lost last night,” Ryan said.
Yes, Ryan said it in a voice about 85 to 90 percent his usual clarity.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Sherry said. “All I could think was, ‘My gosh. We have a miracle.’”
The next morning, Ryan fed himself breakfast despite having a very slight weakness in his right hand the night before.
“To look at him, you would have never thought he had a major stroke,” Sherry said.
Although stroke is often viewed as occurring primarily in the elderly, it also strikes young adults, children, infants and even babies who aren’t yet born. The risk of stroke from birth through age 19 is nearly 5 per 100,000 children per year.
As with adults, speedy diagnosis, treatment and age-appropriate rehabilitation and therapy can minimize death and disability. In addition, more research is needed to better understand the unique aspects of diagnosing and treating stroke in children.
Doctors put Ryan through a battery of tests to try to figure out why he had a stroke, including heart tests, genetic testing and a check of his blood to see if something was wrong with its clotting. Everything came back normal, leaving doctors unsure what caused his stroke.
Among the changes Ryan’s made are a return to sports. After two years away from playing soccer, he returned six months after his stroke, playing goalkeeper for his high school team and a select squad.
And when he turned 16, he got his driver’s license and a ’98 Mustang.
Ryan did face some challenges. The honors student sometimes had difficulty thinking of a word, or couldn’t articulate what he knew in his head. He had trouble with inference when he was reading. Doctors diagnosed him with aphasia (difficulty with speech and language).
He’s getting better but he still has some trouble. Luckily, Ryan can joke about it.
“If we’re playing a family game or something and he doesn’t know something, he says, ‘I had a stroke! What do you expect?’” Sherry said.
Ryan also has been spreading awareness about stroke – and pediatric stroke. That includes throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds game as part of Strike Out Stroke, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati Hospital.
“That was fun. I loved doing that,” Ryan said. “It went great. I went out there, and I threw it right down the middle. It was a perfect pitch.”
He enjoys sharing his story in hopes that others understand that stroke can hit anyone at any age, and to teach them how to recognize a stroke F.A.S.T. — that is, if you detect face drooping, arm weakness or speech difficulty, it’s time to call 9-1-1.
“It can happen to anyone, not just older people,” Ryan said. “It can happen to younger people, too.”