The gift of life on Father’s Day

David Kenyatta, who survived a severe stroke at age 38, is relishing football and fatherhood thanks to the quick help he received.
June 20th, 2017
Stroke survivor David Kenyatta, enjoyed Father’s Day at the Broncos’ UCHealth practice facility with his wife, Candance, son, David and daughters, Kennedi and Dominique.

Back in high school, David Kenyatta was a star running back for Aurora Central, the kind of player who scored five touchdowns in a single game and had hopes of someday playing in the pros.

On Father’s Day, David got to hit the gridiron again, this time at the Denver Broncos’ UCHealth Training Center in Englewood, where he enjoyed some sweet moments, throwing the football with his wife, 4-year-old son and two daughters, ages 10 and 20.  

Even getting a chance to celebrate Father’s Day was a major milestone for David.

On Dec. 12, David suffered a devastating hemorrhagic stroke, a severe bleed on the right side of his brain. He was only 38 and strokes had killed both his mother, 13 years earlier at age 53, and his sister, who was also only 38 when she died in 2011.

David works as an electrician and was driving to a job when his stomach started hurting. He had woken with a minor headache and decided to stop and get a drink.

A stranger may have played a pivotal role in saving David’s life. Someone saw him driving erratically and called 911. With strokes, every second counts. Soon after David had a minor crash in a gas station parking lot where he was trying to pull over, an ambulance arrived and sped him to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital, just four miles away. The quick response was key.

During the ride, David was able to give paramedics his wife’s name and phone number. 

Candance Kenyatta, 35, had just dropped off their younger children — 4-year-old son, David, and 10-year-old daughter, Kennedi — at day care and school when she received the call that she had to get to the hospital fast.

“David is a super careful person. I figured somebody had probably hit him and he got a little banged up,” Candance said.

When she arrived, a nurse told her to wait in a conference room, but she wanted to give David a thumbs up — a tradition of theirs. She walked back to look for him and saw him splayed out, appearing non-responsive as lights flashed on emergency equipment.

Candance collapsed to her knees, screaming and crying, convinced that her husband was dead. A doctor grabbed her and reassured her he was still alive. 

In the Emergency Department and later the Intensive Care Unit, as teams of doctors and nurses worked to stabilize David, Candance struggled to convince herself her husband might live.

The first night, she dreamt about a funeral. The following day, feeling she had to brace for reality, she called a funeral home. On the second and third nights, nightmares about people in suits and caskets continued to haunt her. Candance recently had coped with her own mother’s death.

But as the days passed, Candance decided she had to rid herself of negative thoughts. She willed herself to believe that David would pull through.

 “I prayed for things I’ve never prayed for before,” she said. “I felt he was not going to leave us. We’ve been together a very long time and I felt he was going to be OK.”

Coincidentally, the two had talked about illnesses the night before David’s stroke. David’s best friend has been fighting cancer and had surgery days earlier. If one of them had to get sick, they discussed who it should be and David uttered some prophetic words: “I’m going to be sick, but I’m going to be OK.”

As David clung to life, nurses and doctors cheered the family on.

“Nurse Grace (Uhls) was my favorite. She said, ‘This kind of accident can go either way, but he’s going to pull through. All his vitals look good,’” Candance recalled.

While David was in a medically induced coma for weeks, he remembers a doctor ribbing him as he recovered.

Quick action may have saved David Kenyatta’s life after he suffered a stroke in December. Nurses and doctors in the Neurology ICU helped keep hope alive for David and his family.

“He came by every day and joked with me. He told me I was too healthy to be there. He made me think I was going to get out of there,” David said.

David’s oldest daughter, 20-year-old Dominique, was away at college when her dad became gravely ill. Candance and Dominique’s mom decided they couldn’t tell her about the stroke until she made it through exams in New York. She returned home to find her dad in bad shape.

But on Christmas Day, David gave his family a glimmer of good news. He opened his eyes for the first time and showed some ability to move on his left side. It appeared his brain was beginning to recover.

“He was still out of it. He was still in a very deep sleep, but I told him to give me a kiss and he puckered his lips. He understood me,” Candance said 

David spent nearly a month in the hospital and another month in rehab facilities. He had to go through extensive physical therapy and because of deficits on his left side, had to learn to walk again.

He also has to carefully monitor his blood pressure.

David’s primary care provider is Dr. Aimee English, who practices at UCHealth’s A.F. Williams Family Medicine Center in Stapleton.

English is working with other doctors to better understand why severely high blood pressure runs in David’s family. David keeps very close tabs on his health now, checking his blood pressure daily. Before the stroke, he didn’t know he had to worry.

“He was a very healthy 38-year-old. This is one of those silent killers that goes under the radar,” English said.

David and Candance Kenyatta as he recovered from a stroke.

English said it’s extremely rare for someone as young as David to have had such severe hypertension. But one in four men ages 35 to 44 can have hypertension and one of every two adults suffers from a chronic illness of some sort, English said. That makes it all the more critical for people of all ages to have strong connections with a primary care doctor who knows them well and can help them stay healthy.

“In primary care, it’s all about teaching patients how to take care of themselves on a daily basis. David and his family have done a great job of that. He’s doing an amazing job of monitoring his blood pressure and his family has been super supportive. His wife is with him at every appointment and they’re tracking his care,” English said.

On Sunday, David was able to run and throw the football wearing the #58 jersey of his favorite Broncos player, Von Miller, a gift from UCHealth and the Broncos. David and son, David, are also major Miami Dolphins fans and the family is planning to go to the matchup between the two teams when they play this year in Miami in December. That game will come almost exactly one year after David’s stroke.

The Father’s Day celebration was part of the Broncos’ first-ever “Pigskin with Pops” event, presented by UCHealth, which gave dads a chance to play some football and snap photos with the team’s three Lombardi trophies at the team’s indoor practice facility.

Each dad received a necktie. The kids got commemorative footballs. David and his family attended as part of UCHealth’s Moments to Shine program, which gives patients and their families special experiences as they heal.

As an adult, David has played in a flag football league. He has attended games to support his buddies and hopes to start going to practices soon.

“Seeing him out there throwing the ball with our son was pretty special,” Candance said after Sunday’s Pigskin with Pops event.

“Just being physical out there and being in his element was great. I think he’s about 85 percent cured. “Today, I felt like I had my husband back. 

Despite all he has gone through, David is determined to be optimistic.

“You have to be positive or it can get you down. The challenges can really beat you up,” he said.

But recovering and living a healthy life is everything for David.

“I have to be here for these kids and for my wife. I have to be the best me.”

Click here to see a story about David and his family on CBS4 Denver.