Freak accidents happen all the time. Like most people, I just never thought they would happen to me. Yet, in the summer of 2012, I survived a big stroke due to a sports incident. It turned my life upside down. Let me tell you what happened.
For those of you who don’t know me: my name is Sander, I am 40 years old and I live in Amsterdam. I love innovative things, start-ups and technology. Building exciting stuff with a dedicated team is just wonderful. That’s why I was previously involved in the rise of companies like Albumprinter and why I started Peecho.
Also, for those who do know me, it is quite obvious that sports have always been really important to me. I am an enthusiastic martial artist. The last decade or so, I have been teaching a weekly class of Iranian Kung Fu (yeah, I know - it’s a long story). To learn from others as much as possible, I also enjoyed many lessons in traditional boxing, Thai boxing, Savate, Arnis, Tae Kwan Do and more.
This story starts in 2007, when I thought I was expanding my horizons training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at a well-known gym in Amsterdam. Probably because talking is hard when you wear a mouthguard, it took me an entire month to discover that I was actually participating in a Mixed Martial Arts group. Formerly known as cage fighting, the sports offers brutal workouts, highly sophisticated techniques and merciless sparring. Of course, I loved it.
My cage companions found me a strange little guy at first. I kept getting beat up, so they jokingly nicknamed me “the iceman” - not after the famous champion Chuck Liddell, but because I literally needed ice almost every other session. Luckily, if you start off as the worst ground fighter in the gym, the only way is up. My skills improved and my teammates stopped eyeballing me.
Let’s just skip the montage here and fast-forward to about four years later. Around 2012, MMA had gained more popularity as a television sport. So, the class began to attract more and more first-timers. That’s scarier than you might think. Beginners are the most dangerous people to train with, because sometimes they can be really clumsy - which I would find out soon.
During a drill with a particularly big newbie, I did not tap out soon enough. In a frustrated attempt to correct his failing rear naked choke, he pulled my neck just a little bit too hard for practice. It hurt, but incidents happen. I thought nothing of it.
About a week later, I stepped out of bed in the morning with a splitting headache and immediately fell flat on my face. The right half of my body just didn’t respond at all. Using one arm only, I pulled myself back into the bed and woke up my girlfriend. I wanted to explain the situation, but I could only utter weird noises. I couldn’t speak anymore.
What happened? Technically, it went down like this: when my sparring partner tried to rip off my head, one of the arteries in my neck got damaged. For days, the resulting swelling partially blocked the blood flow to my brain - causing major headaches. In the meantime, a blood clot formed under the blockage. On that sunny Sunday morning, the swelling reduced, the blood started flowing again and the clot propelled into my brain. Boom, stroke by sports.
Still half asleep, my girlfriend kept her cool and called in the cavalry. The ambulance arrived in about ten minutes. The paramedics wasted no time either, hurled me in the back of the van and sped off. I only remember thinking that those sirens were awesome.
In the hospital, things got even worse. While a neurologist was performing some tests, a second stroke occurred. As a result, I didn’t understand anything anymore. It was like everybody suddenly started speaking Chinese. I didn’t even understand the most basic body language. In an instant, the world had become totally incomprehensible. I have never felt so alone.
Although it was still unclear whether my situation was caused by blood clots or a brain hemorrhage, the doctors then decided to inject a huge dose of blood thinners - betting on the first scenario. It was double or nothing, but there was nothing left to lose. Luckily, it was the right decision. I came to my senses quickly, but I was still pretty much paralyzed and could only speak with a limited vocabulary. Some damage was already done.
Blood thinners are fun, though. The next day, I insisted on having a shower all by myself. With half of your body paralyzed, that’s ill advised. Everything went well until I accidentally pulled the needle with syringe out of my arm. At the beat of my heart, the blood rushed out all over the glass shower cabin - quite like Dexter’s blood spatter lab. Ouch.
After about a week I was sent home, only to return the next day as a patient showcase at a national gathering of neurologists. They loved the rare opportunity to see what happens to a well-trained specimen when you hit it with a few carotid dissection strokes. I will never forget the sight of a hall full of doctors reading the MMA Wikipedia entry on their iPads, while I limped awkwardly in front of them.
As a Dutch stroke survivor, you can count on an impressive amount of institutions to help you. My rehabilitation started with bi-weekly sessions with therapists, a psychologist, a neurologist and even a foundation helping to cope with the social impact of brain damage. If you add the truly wonderful staff in the hospital to the equation as well, I would almost recommend it.
It gets even better. My - totally fantastic - girlfriend took a break from work. She didn’t leave me out of her sight and arranged for a plethora of babysitters when she had to be out of the house for even just a minute. So, I had friends over to watch over me, or limp with me to the park, or just to keep me company - including a four-year-old that I had been babysitting before who could now return the favor.
It was a humbling experience and I am really grateful for all the help.
In the weeks after, I had my first encounters with some of the limitations I would have to deal with. For example, the skin of the right side of my body was still completely numb. This made things like drinking hot tea quite hazardous. Holding a cup, I wouldn’t notice the temperature rise until the bones of my fingers started to hurt like hell.
Also, my coordination was pretty bad. To start fixing these motoric problems with exercise, I tried going to the gym. In my first attempt to use a cross-trainer, I passed out and woke up on the floor between the equipment with a big bruise on my head. Taking it slow would prove to be a better approach.
Slow is not my style, unfortunately - so I resumed work at Peecho within a month. Speaking was still problematic, so I spent most of my time programming and I avoided human contact as much as I could. Meanwhile, my co-founder Martijn worked overtime. I am so sorry, man.
Two months later, I was invited by GigaOm to get on stage at their Structure Europe event - facing over a thousand people in the audience, and join the speaker’s dinner afterwards. Both scared the hell out of me. In hindsight, I am not sure if my performance made sense at all, but just being there was a personal triumph - totally worth the week of recovery I needed afterwards.
Fast-forward again to today. It took almost two years full of ups and downs to finally get dismissed from therapy. Tips and tricks from the medical staff, hard work in the gym and the continuous support from my girlfriend and many friends allow me to get close to what I previously perceived as normal. Of course, I think about what happened almost every day.
The largest challenge has been to battle the fatigue that comes with brain damage. My energy levels need constant management. By tediously planning my life and inserting recovery time where I can, I avoid long-term exhaustion. I failed often, but practice makes perfect. On the brighter side, the more permanent effects are a lot easier to deal with.
Frustration about these things used to depress me, but not so much anymore. I find it easier to forgive myself for my lasting imperfections every day. As a result, I have turned in a nicer, more forgiving person to others as well - or so I hope. All in all, I consider myself very lucky: I didn’t die, my analytical skills have not been affected, I am not paralyzed anymore... and most of you think that I still talk too much.
It gets even better. My energy is increasing by the day. So, I happily teach Kung Fu every week, grapple occasionally and you may call me a recreational kickboxer. However, I did promise my loved ones to trade in MMA for yet another obscure abbreviation: OCR. That stands for Obstacle Course Racing. Every month or so, you can find me crawling in mud and climbing walls somewhere.
On top of that, 2015 has been a very good year so far. Last month, my start-up Peecho closed another funding round and I began a new adventure as CTO at myTomorrows, a really disruptive start-up in the digital health space. As an unexpected bonus, I managed to qualify for the OCR World Championships 2015 in Ohio, which might even soothe my midlife crisis for a while.
Everybody needs a hobby, right?