Tyree Russell’s Why
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 he didn’t realize a family history could increase his risk for it. “I thought I was invincible,” Russell said.
When he was diagnosed with high blood pressure at age 26, he didn’t bother to take the medication his doctor prescribed. He figured he didn’t need to because he played basketball every day, and he wasn’t overweight.
A decade later things had changed — he had a job that required a lot of travel, and he ate a diet heavy in high-sodium and fatty foods. He had packed on more than 30 pounds. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he also had high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.
“I was a ticking time bomb,” he said. And definitely not unique — African-Americans have the highest rates of high blood pressure of any population in the world.
On Jan. 14, 2011, Tyree woke up 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.
Tyree, who is now 40, doesn’t remember much after he arrived at the hospital, and he didn’t learn until a few days later that he’d had an ischemic stroke.
His stroke was complicated by dangerously high blood pressure, which doctors struggled to get under control. Tyree spent 17 days in intensive care and was released after 41 days in the hospital, paralyzed on the right side and unable to see or hear clearly.
He was prescribed more than a dozen medications — blood thinners, drugs to control blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Doctors at the hospital recommended physical and occupational therapy for Tyree to regain his strength and mobility. But without insurance, he couldn’t afford the therapy sessions.
Living life in a wheelchair, the one-time basketball player grappled with depression and the possibility he might never recover.
When a friend offered to touch up the paint to cover the wheelchair scuffs on the walls, Tyree decided he’d had enough. He got out of the wheelchair and began working his way to the garage using a walker to get supplies to do it himself. The trip, which would normally take less than a minute, took him a half-hour and left him 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, adding distance slowly as he built strength. Tyree changed his diet, swapping fast food and red meat for lean meats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.
By October, just 10 months after his stroke, Tyree had lost 35 pounds and could walk for miles, although he still had a significant limp. Despite these physical gains, he still struggled with blurred vision, speech challenges, balance and difficulty using his right hand. In August 2012, he enrolled in the local community college, in an effort to challenge his brain, force him to use his right hand more and speak in front of others.
Researching services for a class assignment, Tyree learned about a stroke support group and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Sharing his story and meeting other survivors motivated him to keep working toward his goal and feel grateful for what he had achieved on his own. He is motivated to educate others on how important diet and exercise are 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.
Today, his lifestyle changes have enabled Tyree 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 weak.
“I still have a slight limp, but most people wouldn’t notice it,” he said.
Tyree has worked with his local AHA, helping develop community programs and sharing his story at local events.
His why? “Having a stroke really brought me back to life,” he said. “I want to be an inspiration to others and show them that they can change their lives.”
Everyone has a reason to live a longer and healthier life.
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