David Kenyatta always seemed to have superpowers.
Back in high school, when he was a football star at Aurora Central, opponents had to keep a close eye on No. 9.
His superpower then was taking nothing-special plays and turning them into big yardage. He once scored five touchdowns in a single game.
“He was a really good running back. He was naturally blessed and just darn good at football,” said Charles Fritz, Kenyatta’s teammate in high school and a close friend ever since.
“He’d take a three yard play and turn it into 80,” Fritz said.
More recently, Kenyatta has had to dig deep for new superpowers.
When he was just 38 in December of 2016, he suffered a devastating hemorrhagic stroke and had to be hospitalized and in a rehabilitation center for more than two months. Then he had to learn how to walk again and how to rebuild his life.
Dangerously high blood pressure runs in Kenyatta’s family and strokes killed both his mom and sister. His sister died in 2009 and was also 38 when she had her stroke. Their mom died at age 53.
Until his stroke, Kenyatta was like most of his friends, busy putting in long hours at work, taking care of kids and hanging out with friends.
Kenyatta was the charismatic, life of the party kind of guy. Afterward, he has become more quiet and philosophical. He knows he could have died. And a voice inside his head sometimes haunts him: “You had a stroke. You had a stroke.”
To cope with that voice, Kenyatta has had to confront his fears and re-boot his life. He changed jobs to reduce his stress, carefully monitors his blood pressure, works out regularly, keeps in close touch with his doctors and takes all his medication.
“He’s been a really good trooper after all of this. He’s been great about following up,” said Dr. Annie Chen, Kenyatta’s nephrologist with the UCHealth Kidney Disease and Hypertension Clinic. “His positive attitude has been a big part of his recovery.”
Along with tending to his health, Kenyatta relishes simple times with his wife and kids. In his old job, he had to work long hours, often on weekends. Now, he gets to go to his 5 year-old son’s flag football games and his 11-year-old daughter’s cheerleading competitions. His oldest, a 21-year-old daughter, recently graduated from college, is living in New York and now wants to become a nurse because she admired the people who cared for her dad.
On a recent evening, as Kenyatta watched Monday Night Football with his family, his son, David, Jr. crawled into his lap, clearly loving the chance to cuddle with a dad he nearly lost. DJ, as he’s known, was paging through a book of superheroes and the kindergartener explained how his dad is just like them.
“He’s got super strength, just like Superman,” said DJ, then he flashed a big grin, just like his dad’s.
Quick action saved a life
Kenyatta was driving to a job as an electrician’s apprentice on the morning of Dec. 12 when he started to feel strange. He had woken up with a minor headache, then his stomach started hurting. He tried to pull over to get something to drink.
Fortunately, a stranger saw him driving erratically and called 911. With strokes, every second counts. Paramedics sped Kenyatta to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital just four miles away, where stroke experts stabilized him.
During the ride, David was able to give paramedics his wife’s name and phone number.
Candance Kenyatta had just dropped off DJ at day care and his older sister, Kennedi, at 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,” said Candance, now 36.
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 ER 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.
A prophecy: ‘I’m going to be sick, but I’m going to be OK’
“I prayed for things I’ve never prayed for before,” Candance 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.
Fritz, David’s best friend, has been fighting cancer and was heading into surgery himself. Because of all Fritz had gone through, Candance and David had a tough talk themselves. 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 was my favorite,” Candance said. “She told me, ‘This kind of accident can go either way, but he’s going to pull through. All his vitals look good.’”
Every day, David’s father, Mike Kenyatta, now 68, sat by his son’s hospital bed, willing him to get better.
While David was in a medically induced coma for weeks, he remembers a doctor ribbing him as he recovered.
“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, 21-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.
Learning to walk again
David spent nearly a month in the hospital and another month in rehab facilities. During his hospital stay, he lost 50 pounds, shrinking to 168. He only has fleeting memories of his time in the coma and found it incredibly disorienting to lose an entire month of his life, especially the Christmas season, which he loves.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” said Kenyatta.
Because of deficits on his left side, he had to learn to walk again.
“It was like watching a baby,” Candance said.
“My rehab specialist was tough,” David recalled. “She told me I’d get my strength back eventually.”
But those first steps and first days were painful and exhausting.
“I had been lying in bed for a month and a half. They gave me a walker. That made me feel so old,” David said.
Little by little, David made progress.
“One day, he took 100 steps,” DJ said, proudly recounting his dad’s recovery.
Along with the physical challenges, David faced mental obstacles. For a long time, he felt guilty.
“I was disappointed in myself. I blamed myself for letting it happen,” David said.
Since then, however, he has learned that the high blood pressure that he’s coping with is not his fault. It’s very rare in men his age.
David’s nephrologist has tested him to be sure he doesn’t have other illnesses that could have caused his hypertension. Chen has ruled those out. Instead, she believes that David likely has a gene that unfortunately is much more common in African Americans and causes hypertension. It’s called the APOL 1 gene, short for apolipoprotein L1.
Along with Chen, David also keeps in close contact with his primary care team.
His provider is Dr. Aimee English, who practices at UCHealth’s A.F. Williams Family Medicine Center in Stapleton.
English encourages David to keep close tabs on his blood pressure every day. And she too, stresses that David’s stroke was not his fault.
“He was a very healthy 38-year-old. This is one of those silent killers that goes under the radar,” English said.
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.
‘Clinging to the preciousness of life’
As David recovers from the stroke and its aftermath, he is trying to be more forgiving of himself, while also carefully monitoring his health.
“The stroke opened my eyes to some things and I need to be a little more health conscious. The time away from my family was hard on me, but I built some character within myself,” he said.
“I’ve simplified and slowed down,” David said.
He also encourages friends to be more aware.
“Man, check your numbers. Watch your blood pressure,” David said.
As David has re-shaped his life, he’s found support from his friend, Fritz, who is still coping with his own colon cancer battle.
“We’re in a similar situation. We’re clinging to the preciousness of life,” Fritz said.
Along with dealing with serious health problems themselves, both men also lost their moms far too young. Fritz’ mom passed away of colon cancer. Her death prompted him to get screened at 35, much younger than most people do. And sure enough, doctors found cancer.
The friends both have survived periods of fear and anger, but Fritz said they view their moms as angels.
“I believe I’ve got angels who watch out for me. I try to listen to those angels in our day to day lives,” said Fritz, who is an assistant principal at a middle school in the Cherry Creek Schools.
“David feels like his mom is looking out for him too,” Fritz said. “Dealing with something like a stroke slows you down and you listen to the angels. Life moves too fast. We get caught up in changing the oil or what we’re having for dinner.”
When David tried to pull over just before his stroke, Fritz thinks his mom was sending him a little message: “You’ve got to take care of yourself. Slow down, take care of your kids and realize what’s important.”
And that’s what he’s doing. He’s hoping to play football again with his buddies in the spring. And, he plans to volunteer as a coach for DJ’s flag football team.
Rather than dwelling on the burden of coping with high blood pressure, David plans to embrace a new title he can wear with pride: survivor.
He’s planning to get a tattoo on his right forearm where he can see it every day. It will be in the shape of a red ribbon, a symbol that honors stroke survivors.
David never really felt like a hero after the stroke. But every chance to spend time with his family reminds him that he lived for a greater purpose.
“I have to be here for these kids and for my wife. I have to be the best me.”