Roger Jorgensen has logged more than 4,300 miles of walking in the past three years — an impressive feat considering the left side of his body struggles to move.
“If God healed me today, I’d run the next 500,” he said as he made his way through a small crowd of supporters who gathered at a symbolic finish line set up by his Life After Stroke support group leader, Christy Dittmar.
“Roger’s story is symbolic of what people experience if they take that step to move forward after a stroke,” Dittmar said. “His goal was about walking, and he’s taken that on. … He was in a wheelchair and would still be had he not started that process one step at a time.”
Not one of Jorgensen’s steps came easily or quickly, but he never gave up, no matter how much time passed.
His inspirational stroke story
Nine years ago, Jorgensen was a 51-year-old, hardworking and successful businessman living in Wellington and traveling all over the western United States as a district manager of a commercial roofing company. A Type-A personality, he was a go-getter, both in his career and personal life.
But on Nov. 30, 2008, that man died in the basement of his home — at least that’s how his high-school sweetheart wife, Susan, tells the story. And he didn’t return for almost seven years.
On that cold November morning, Jorgensen had gone downstairs around 7 a.m. to do his regular powerlifting workout.
“I had woken up that day with a bad headache,” Jorgensen recalled. “It was Sunday, and I went down to do a quick workout in the basement because I had to leave town Monday. I was just warming up my arms and then down I went. My glasses fell off my nose, and I went to move them up, but I couldn’t move.”
Hearing the fall, Susan rushed downstairs to see her husband flat on his face. She went to roll him over. “Then I saw his face,” she remembered.
Identifying the signs of a stroke is important so immediate action can be taken to minimize its effects, said Dr. Gerald McIntosh, UCHealth’s stroke program medical director in northern Colorado.
Think FAST: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty and Time to call 911.
Recognizing the symptoms of a stroke by remembering FAST is important, but so is stroke prevention.
Jorgensen said he should have listened to his body. At 30 years old, he struggled with chronic fatigue, and as he aged, he never slept well and later was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. He had a family history of high blood pressure, and just about a month before his stroke, he found himself out of breath more often during mild activity. In four different incidents, his family held interventions for him because they felt he was working too much.
“I blew it all off,” Jorgensen said. “All that was telling me to slow down, and I blew it off.”
Here are other simple steps to preventing a stroke:
- Get active: Walking for 15 minutes each day can help promote healthy blood pressure.
- Fiber up: Getting an additional 7grams of fiber each day can help keep a healthy weight and reduce buildup in blood vessels.
- Stop smoking: Tobacco usage accelerates clot formation by thickening blood and increasing plaque buildup in arteries.
- Eat smart: A diet rich in brain-healthy snacks like walnuts, avocados and other omega-3 boosting foods can reduce the risk of stroke.
About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic, meaning they are caused by blood clots blocking the flow of blood to the brain. The other 13 percent are hemorrhagic, meaning they are caused by bleeding in the brain. Ischemic strokes are treated with a drug called tPA — tissue plasminogen activator — which helps dissolve the blood clot quickly and restore blood flow to the vessels of the brain. The drug must be administered within four-and-a-half hours of the onset of symptoms. Those who receive the drug within that window of time have a better chance of returning to a normal life than those who do not receive tPA.
Susan didn’t waste any time calling 911, and paramedics arrived in about five minutes. A large man — about 6 foot 2 inches and 290 pounds — Jorgensen said he could see in the paramedics’ faces that they were contemplating how to get him up the stairs. And with a bit of determination — the last he would muster for the next seven years — Jorgensen pulled himself up and walked with paramedics upstairs and onto the stretcher.
When he arrived at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, a Primary Stroke Center, he seemed to be doing OK for having just had a stroke. So, the family rushed home to grab a few items only to return to bad news. Jorgensen had a continuance of the stroke, meaning that the clot that had broken up and then clotted again elsewhere.
Jorgensen had lost all mobility in his left side and cognitive skills such as telling time, counting, reading and short-term memory. After a few days in the ICU, he was moved to an inpatient life-skills rehabilitation center. But after seven weeks, Susan wanted to take him home.
“I knew he was giving up in there,” she said.
Grieving and loss
Things did not improve much at home. Jorgensen sat in his chair most days. And once he was mobile without the wheelchair, a walk to the bathroom and back was his biggest journey. He was sad and depressed. This went on for years.
“I grieved the loss of my husband because that guy had died,” Susan said. “I had to give myself permission to cry one day a week — Saturdays — because crying every day was exhausting and I had a lot to do. Then it wasn’t every Saturday, and things got better.”
But not for Jorgensen.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” he recalled. “I wanted to die. I prayed every night, ‘Take me home, Lord, please.’”
They relied on their faith. And Susan never stopped encouraging her husband to go to the stroke support group and use his body more. That’s what got them through all those years until a turnaround point: a doctor’s visit.
Stroke support near you…
Having a stroke is a life-altering experience. Support groups are a great way to meet other stroke survivors or caregivers who understand what you are going through. Contact a local group today.
UCH Stroke Support Group: 2:30-4 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month, UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital Anschutz Outpatient Pavilion, room 2006 (second floor); contact Angela Vasilatos at 720.848.4467 for more information or email [email protected].
Neuro/Stroke/Brain Injury Support Group at Memorial Hospital: 5-7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, 1400 E. Boulder St., Colorado Springs, in the basement level cafeteria/Pyramid Room; contact Colleen at 719.365.9841.
Fort Collins Life After Stroke Support Group: 12:30 – 2 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at Fort Collins Senior Center, 1200 Raintree Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80526. Contact [email protected] for more information.
“I weighed 312 pounds!” Jorgensen said. “And I asked Susan, ‘Honey, do I look like I weigh 312 pounds?’ And she told me I looked like Santa Claus.”
Now able to joke about it, he continued, “There was this one time it was raining and the only thing that got wet under the umbrella was my belly.”
When they returned home from the doctor’s office, something changed: that strong-willed guy that Susan thought had died returned.
Taking the first steps
Instead of retreating to his chair, Jorgensen walked out the front door. He took the first of thousands of steps that would lead him toward recovery.
“I could do one thing — that’s walk — so that’s what I did,” he said.
He started walking in the driveway and then he ventured to the end of the street. Now he’s the “Wellington wanderer,” covering about 4.5 miles per day.
Walking, it turns out, has also helped strengthen his mind.
“I count every step, so I’m working my mind, and all of a sudden I realized my brain has come back,” Jorgensen said.
For seven years, Jorgensen was a “potted plant,” said Susan. Now, he has bloomed.
It’s not easy, and Susan said she is still fearful. Everything can change so quickly, but she stresses that no one should ever give up hope.
Jorgensen sums it up by paraphrasing a verse from the Bible: You have not because you’ve asked not.
“I realized I was asking Him to take me,” he said. “I had never asked Him to heal me.”