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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/

Three Strokes at 38

Rosdahl, Anne

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Actor Kevin Sorbo's Amazing Story of Survival

Fourteen years ago, actor Kevin Sorbo seemed to have it all. The 38-year-old actor had achieved a cult following as the star of one of television's highest-rated shows, Hercules, and was engaged to Sam Jenkins, an actress he had met on the set. Things were definitely going his way.

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Then in the summer of 1997, life as Sorbo knew it came crashing down. First came the puzzling symptoms that plagued him for several months, including intermittent pain, aching, tingling and a cold sensation in his left arm and hand. Then, one night as he was driving home, Sorbo began experiencing blurry vision, dizziness and buzzing in his head. Sam suggested they go to the hospital, but Sorbo refused, thinking a good night's sleep might help him feel better.

The next morning, Sorbo's condition had deteriorated to the point where his speech was slurred and he could barely walk. After being rushed to the emergency room, doctors determined that the actor had an aneurysm in his shoulder that was disrupting blood flow to his lower arm. Of the two main arteries that feed the hand, one of Sorbo's was completely blocked.

Doctors scheduled an immediate angiogram (a test that uses X-rays to view blood vessels) to “clot off” the aneurysm and form a new arterial wall, allowing blood to flow normally through the area. Further testing showed that Sorbo had also experienced several minor strokes, known as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which accounted for his dizziness and vision loss.

This month, the 52-year-old actor reveals for the first time the story behind his healthcare crisis and amazing journey to recovery in his new book, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life (De Capo Press).

Although Sorbo had no cardiac risk factors and was in good health, doctors believe his minor strokes may have been caused by transient retrograde flow (TRF). This happens when a severe blockage in a blood vessel, combined with the right trigger (such as intense pressure or a strong muscle contraction), causes the blood in the vessels to surge backward. Yet even specialists couldn't give Sorbo definitive answers, citing his case as a medical anomaly.

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“While Mr. Sorbo's case is rare, any blood vessel can develop aneurysms anywhere in the body,” says Edward Jauch, M.D., Director of Research in the Division of Emergency Medicine and the Department of Neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert in the field of stroke research. “Typically, the blood vessels between the heart and brain are the ones that develop aneurysms that can produce strokes.”

While doctors told Sorbo that someone of his age and physical health had about a one in seventy-five million chance of experiencing both an aneurysm and a stroke, Jauch says it's becoming all too common to see young, healthy people who have experienced a stroke. In fact, new research released in September 2011 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that within a 13-year period, from 1995 to 2008, the number of people ages 15 to 44 who were hospitalized for strokes rose by 37 percent.

“While it's generally believed older people are more vulnerable to stroke, the reality is people of all ages can suffer a stroke,” says Jauch. “In addition, symptoms may not always be the classic ones of face/arm/leg weakness. Some may only experience blurred vision, confusion and slurred speech.”

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A lifelong athlete, Sorbo's onscreen portrayal of a mythological warrior/demigod was so realistic that many failed to separate the actor from his alter ego. At the height of his career, Sorbo would spend 90 minutes working out at the gym after a 14-hour day on the set of Hercules, and then finish the day with a 3- or 4-mile run.

“Hercules brought down by an aneurysm—it seemed like a myth,” Sorbo says. “I didn't understand how I could be severely ill. I was 38, in top shape and had never even missed a day of school.”

After his strokes, Sorbo's life changed dramatically. While his doctors predicted he should see a significant improvement within three months, Sorbo found himself suffering from residual stroke effects including dizziness, nausea and intermittent pain in his head, arms and chest. In addition, the stroke had left Sorbo with some vision loss and a feeling of overwhelming fatigue.

“My doctors told me not to overexert myself, to take it easy,” Sorbo says. “I arranged for five weeks off work, but I had no idea how to begin to heal.”

Like many stroke survivors, Sorbo became depressed, alternating between worrying about the possibility of more strokes and wondering if he would ever fully recover. Sam encouraged him to attend therapy after the couple discovered Sorbo was unable to tolerate many of the side effects of antidepressants.

“Post-stroke depression is very common, but can often go unrecognized and untreated,” says Ralph Sacco, M.D., a stroke neurologist from the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, Florida, and immediate past president of the American Heart Association. “While post-stroke depression is very treatable, it can often inhibit a patient's recovery if they aren't appropriately diagnosed and receive treatment.”

Sorbo began rehab therapy and found salvation in taking long leisurely walks with Sam each morning.

“Before my illness I was fully preoccupied with the material side of life,” Sorbo says. “Moving at the speed of light, I ignored the spiritual side, the unseen. But being sidelined with time to spare, I had a lot of conversations with God and told him my problems.”

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Even with his renewed faith and perseverance, Sorbo was frustrated by his slow recovery. Eight weeks after his initial health crisis, he wasn't seeing any significant improvement. Hercules was starting production again, and while the studio had told the media that Sorbo had suffered an aneurysm, the strokes and the severity of his condition hadn't been disclosed.

“I was doing the best acting of my life by acting like I was healthy,” Sorbo says.

Unable to resume his normal shooting schedule of 12-hour days and performing all of his own stunts, the show brought on a revolving door of guest stars, reworked scripts and revamped production. There were days when Sorbo was only on set for an hour at a time.

“A patient's recovery time after a stroke can be highly variable and includes looking at factors such as where the stroke occurred, and their overall health,” says Sacco. “Each person's ability to recover lost abilities varies widely, so it can be hard to give patients an accurate recovery time frame.”

Despite feeling as though his recovery was dragging on, Sorbo continued to persevere. He married Sam in 1998 and continued to juggle filming Hercules with his rehab.

“I went through two years of hell before I began to feel like myself again,” Sorbo says.

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Today, Sorbo has regained his health, although he still occasionally gets migraines and has a 10 percent loss of vision. Now a father of three young children, Sorbo has resumed an active lifestyle, has several movies in post-production, is working on a television pilot, and received critical acclaim for his role in the recent film Soul Surfer.

He hopes that sharing his own experiences in his new book will help others who have suffered from a stroke or aneurysm.

“Because they change so quickly and dramatically, my kids have brought to me an unlikely peace. Life, as we all must come to accept, is transient,” Sorbo says. “Every day my kids show me I can't dwell in the past if I am to appreciate the gift that is the present.”

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Are you at risk?

“There are many simple and modifiable risk factors for stroke,” Sacco says. Controllable lifestyle factors that can raise your risk of having a stroke include:

▪ high blood pressure

▪ cigarette smoking

▪ diabetes

▪ atrial fibrillation

▪ carotid, peripheral or other artery disease

▪ other heart disease

▪ sickle cell disease (also called sickle cell anemia)

▪ high blood cholesterol

▪ poor diet

▪ physical inactivity and obesity

Uncontrollable risk factors for stroke include:

Age: The older you are the greater your stroke risk.

Gender: In most age groups, more men than women have strokes, but more women die from stroke.

Heredity (Family history): Your stroke risk is greater if a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had a stroke.

Race: African Americans have a higher risk of death and disability from stroke than whites because they have high blood pressure more often. Hispanic Americans are also at higher risk of stroke. “In South Carolina, young (ages 30 to 50) African American males have a higher rate of stroke than other areas of the United States, likely due to diet, hypertension and access to care,” says Jauch.

Previous stroke or TIAs: Having a stroke puts you at higher risk of having another one.

© 2011 American Heart Association, Inc.