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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000446608.64596.4f
Features: Cover Story

One Shot for Fame and Glory

Fuerst, Mark L.

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Young stroke survivor Cory Weissman inspires others, on and off the court

All his life Cory Weissman dreamed of making the highlight reel on ESPN. A star basketball player at Jackson Memorial High School in N.J., where he scored more than 1,000 points, Cory was expected to be a standout player when he arrived at Gettysburg College. But at the young age of 19, Cory had a catastrophic stroke at the end of his freshman year. Against all odds, he came back from this life-threatening event to start the final game of his senior year. More dramatically, he scored the first and only point of his college career, with the help of a rare act of sportsmanship from the opposing team.

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FROM 1,000 TO 1

The inspirational story of Cory's return to the basketball court three years after experiencing a stroke, along with the actions of the coaches and student athletes who made it possible, turned him into a national sensation. His courageous recovery with a storybook ending is told in the just-released movie, 1,000 to 1: The Cory Weissman Story, starring David Henrie from How I Met Your Mother as Cory and co-starring award-winning actor Beau Bridges (visit 1000to1movie.com for more information).

“We all have obstacles,” Cory says. “Overcoming them always starts with the first step, by pushing fear and doubt aside. When I started to recover, I made up my mind to get back out on the basketball court.”

Cory's ordeal began on March 26, 2009, when he was lifting weights in an offseason workout. “I got a piercing headache, like I was stabbed in the head with a knife,” he says. “Later I found out it was a blood vessel bursting in my brain.” Cory's left arm and leg went numb, and his fellow freshman teammate Brendan Trelease helped steer him toward the athletic trainer's room. “I looked at my left leg, which felt dead,” he recalls. “My toes were dragging on the ground. That was the most emotional moment of my experience.”

Emergency medical technicians rushed Cory to Gettysburg Hospital, where he was stabilized. “On the way to the hospital, they had to cut off my T-shirt, which had my nickname on it, ‘Mr. 1,000,’” he says. “I took this as a symbol to leave the old Cory behind. I had no choice but to start over.”

He was transported to Hershey Medical Center by ambulance, and a brain scan showed he had bleeding into his brain in the frontal lobe on the right side. What caused the bleeding turned out to be a congenital blood vessel malformation called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM (see What is an arteriovenous malformation? on page 6). This abnormal tangle of blood vessels, where the arteries directly feed into the veins, looks like a can of worms or bowl of spaghetti. This creates weak points in the vessels, which can lead to bleeding and, in Cory's case, a stroke.

Doctors performed a procedure to reduce the risk of further bleeding of his AVM. They snaked a catheter the size of a small piece of spaghetti into Cory's brain and injected a liquid, glue-like substance through it, causing the vessels to seal up. Ten days later, he went to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

“Even though I had physical deficits and my left side was paralyzed, I had the goal of being back on the basketball court,” Cory says. “I never doubted that.” His mother, Tina, who is a physical therapist, knew that playing basketball would help his recovery, so she and his father Marc propped Cory up to shoot hoops in an outdoor patio at the rehab center.

After five weeks at Kessler, Cory continued to do outpatient physical therapy. He was still having trouble walking and struggling with short-term memory loss when he returned to Hershey for a seven-hour operation on June 1 to remove the AVM and to prevent further hemorrhages.


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Cory's surgery entailed removing a piece of bone in his skull to get to the AVM in his brain. “We didn't have to go through the brain because the AVM was on the surface between the right and left hemispheres,” says Robert Harbaugh, M.D., director at the Penn State Institute of the Neurosciences. “We worked around the AVM to normalize blood vessels without disturbing the surrounding brain. The surgery went well. It was easy to localize the AVM, which was fairly small and came out nicely. Cory went home in a few days.”

There was nothing Cory did or didn't do to cause his stroke, Harbaugh says. This was a congenital problem—blood vessels in his brain failed to develop normally. Often, doctors don't know an AVM exists until the patient has seizures or headaches. In fact, the most common presenting symptom is bleeding in the brain.

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STROKES IN THE YOUNG

Strokes can happen at any age, including in young people. About half of all strokes among those ages 15 to 44 are called ischemic strokes, where blood flow to the brain is stopped due to a blockage or clot in a blood vessel. Another 20 percent are due to an intracerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain. About 30 percent are caused by subarachnoid hemorrhage, which occurs when a weakened blood vessel deep within the brain expands out like a balloon then ruptures, causing bleeding into the space around the brain.

Recent studies indicate that more strokes are occurring at younger ages. (For more information, visit heartinsight.com to read our online-only bonus article, “Risk of Stroke on the Rise in the Young.”) Among African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitians, strokes occur at younger ages due to uncontrolled blood pressure and diabetes, says Ralph Sacco, M.D., M.S., F.A.H.A., F.A.A.N., chairman of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, and past president of the American Heart Association. Overuse of cocaine and other substance abuse can also increase the risk of stroke. In addition, active young people, for example, football players or weightlifters whose necks may twist violently, are at risk for dissection of an artery, in which a blood clot forms, breaks off and blocks an artery in the brain.

“Stroke is largely preventable, beatable and treatable,” Sacco says. Some strokes are preventable by making lifestyle changes, for example, stopping smoking, getting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity regularly and eating a heart-healthy diet. High blood pressure and high blood sugar levels can be treated with diet, exercise and medication. Other strokes are hereditary and largely unpredictable. “Then you have to focus on doing everything you can to recover and prevent a second one,” he says.

It's important to know the typical symptoms of a stroke. The primary neurological symptoms of stroke are described by using the acronym FAST: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty and Time, indicating the need for urgency in dealing with those symptoms. “Other major neurologic symptoms are sudden weakness or numbness and tingling on one side of the body, sudden loss of speech or slurred speech, sudden loss of vision, difficulty walking and severe headache, although headache comes mostly during hemorrhagic strokes,” Sacco says.

If symptoms develop, call 9-1-1 immediately, because time is of the essence, or as the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association says, “Time lost is brain lost.” The symptoms of stroke need to be recognized quickly and immediate action needs to be taken.

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What is an arteriovenous malformation?

Normally, arteries carry blood containing oxygen from the heart to the brain, and veins then carry the blood from the brain back to the heart. When an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, occurs, a tangle of blood vessels in or on the surface of the brain bypasses normal brain tissue and diverts blood from the arteries to the veins. It can happen anywhere in the brain.

AVMs are usually congenital, as in Cory's case, and it's unknown why they occur. Although AVMs aren't common, affecting less than 1 percent of the general population, they are “potentially lethal, dangerous lesions,” says Robert Harbaugh, M.D., director at the Penn State Institute of the Neurosciences. “Cory had the option of microsurgery to take the AVM out or radiosurgery to treat it with a gamma knife. I felt his best option was microsurgery, and Cory agreed.”

The gamma knife uses high-dose radiation to obliterate an AVM in an outpatient procedure. However, it takes a few years for the AVM to disappear. During that time there is still a risk of hemorrhage, and after therapy there is a 25 to 30 percent chance further treatment is needed, Harbaugh says. Microsurgery has risks from the general anesthesia and a very low risk of serious neurological problems, but it eliminates any chance of further hemorrhage.

Stroke rehabilitation can be intense and requires focus. “The right attitude and being goal-oriented can make a difference in recovery,” Sacco says. “That's why Cory's story is so uplifting. He shows that young people who have a stroke can fulfill some of their dreams.”

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BACK IN THE GAME

Cory returned to Gettysburg College in the fall for his sophomore year. Head Coach George Petrie invited Cory to work the clock during basketball practice. “Coach knew how much being around the team meant to me,” Cory says. “I wasn't capable of practicing. That drove me to work out even harder.”

Then the seizures started. Even though he was taking anticonvulsants and muscle relaxants, Cory suffered about two dozen seizures. It took two years to adjust his medications to get the seizures under control. “Anyone who has an AVM, hemorrhage and surgery has an increased risk of seizures,” Harbaugh says.

In his senior year, Cory went to basketball practice to run the score clock, cheer on his teammates and participate in individual drills. “I understood I was not ready to play at full speed,” he says. His teammates, who were inspired by his effort and encouragement, voted him one of three team co-captains.

The night before Senior Day, the last home game of the season on February 11, 2012, Petrie decided to put Cory in the starting lineup. He reached out to the opposing coach at Washington College, who agreed to let Cory start the game and then sub out immediately. The crowd went wild when Cory's name was announced. After tipoff he got the ball, rolled it out of bounds and checked out of the game. He had made it back onto the basketball court. But that was not the end of his game day.

With less than one minute left and Gettysburg ahead by 18 points, Petrie put Cory back in. “An assistant coach on [the Washington team] told one of our coaches they had a plan,” Cory says. “They passed me the ball and then fouled me gently. They were over the foul limit, so that gave me two foul shots.”

He missed the first shot and sank the second one. “I was so confident about that second shot,” he says. “I saw three years of hard work flash before my eyes. All I had to do was let it go. I knew it would go in.” After the game, “Coach gave me the game ball,” Cory says, which was signed by Petrie and all of Cory's teammates.

Cory's dream of making it onto ESPN did come true. His one, final foul shot was included on the “Top Plays” of the day, and he later became the subject of a lengthy feature on the ESPN website and during ESPN's College GameDay.


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ROAD TO RECOVERY

Throughout his recovery, Cory remained positive and upbeat as he worked with doctors and rehabilitation experts. “He has made a remarkably good recovery,” Harbaugh says. “He still has left-sided motor deficits. But Cory is a real athlete and has good strength in all muscle groups. He may have lost a step, but he's already demonstrated the drive and energy to overcome any minor deficit. If you saw him walking down the street, you would never know he had anything wrong with him. With his AVM completely gone, there is no chance of further risk from that problem. I'm optimistic that Cory's long-term outlook is good.”

Now 24, Cory graduated from Gettysburg College in December 2012 with a health science degree. Taking to heart the information he learned through his degree, he makes sure to eat a heart-healthy diet. “I'm a whole-wheat pasta fan,” he says. “I eat lots of fish, peanuts and olive oil and keep my fat intake down. I love salad and broccoli, and eat greens every day.”

Five years after his stroke, Cory continues to work out on his own six days a week. “I lift weights, run on a treadmill, box, do agility drills and play golf, tennis and basketball,” he says. He gets together with friends and shoots baskets to “relieve any stress that I may have.”

This spring, Cory began pursuing a career as a motivational speaker. “I look at my stroke as a great gift,” he says. “I have an opportunity to inspire others, to turn a negative into a positive. I don't compare my situation to anyone else's. You can't control what life brings, only how to play the cards you've been dealt. It takes hard work and dedication.”

© 2014 by the American Heart Association

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