By Denis Campbell
The four-time Olympic champion didn’t know if he would ever recover from his stroke. Eight months later, he warns: it could happen to anyone
‘‘I experienced no pain. There was no jolting moment that made me think: I’m having a stroke,” posited by Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson is recalling the unusual physical sensations – involuntary movement of his left foot, numbness, “a sort of tingling sensation” in his left arm – that came over him moments after finishing his daily workout in his home gym in August last year.
“I hobbled over to my weights bench and thought, am I having a cramp or something? I called my wife Armine over and said: ‘Hey, something feels weird. Something doesn’t feel right.’”
The cause wasn’t a cramp, though, overexertion or an infection. The legendary athlete – a four-time Olympic sprint champion, just 50 years old at the time – was having a stroke. As he tweeted soon after: “It seems these things can affect anyone, even the once-fastest man in the world!”
The confusion he felt was fairly typical, he points out now, eight months later, on the phone from his home in California. Many stroke victims do not realise at first that they are experiencing an event that could leave them dead or seriously disabled, potentially for life.
“I experienced no pain,” he says, in a deep drawl reflecting his Texan roots.
“There was no jolting moment that made me think: ‘I’m having a stroke.’ And I think that’s one of the things that makes it so potentially dangerous.”
After half an hour spent wondering what to do, Johnson decided to go to hospital. Armine drove him to the Emergency Room at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, 20 minutes from their home in Malibu. It was a wise call. A CT scan, then an MRI confirmed the ER doctor’s diagnosis of a stroke.
“I’d been able to get off my bed, and on to the MRI table myself – but when the MRI ended 30 minutes later, I could no longer walk. I couldn’t stand or put any weight on my left leg. The numbness in my left arm had increased significantly and I couldn’t feel the two smallest fingers of my left hand. And my foot was completely numb.”
Johnson – an athlete once so supreme that he was known as Superman – was now enfeebled. The stroke had occurred deep in the right side of his brain, in an area called the thalamus – a thalamic or lacunar stroke, in medical jargon.
His sudden helplessness prompted him to start asking a lot of difficult questions: what was his life going to be like now? Would he be able to dress himself? Would he need others to look after him? Would he recover – and how long would that take?
Frustratingly for Johnson, the medical team could not provide the clarity he wanted. “They said: ‘Because you’re in good shape and got here quickly, that improves your chances, but only time will tell.’”
The doctors’ uncertainty about how well and how quickly he would recover was shocking, he says. “It made me feel – it’s hard to describe – just afraid and scared, and wondering what my future was going to be.”
In the 1990s, Johnson was the fastest man in history over 200 and 400 metres.
He became the poster boy of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta after triumphing over both distances in custom-made golden spikes. Now he was having to come to terms with the fact that recovery from stroke is variable and not guaranteed.
“It took a while for that to actually sink in,” he says.
Initially, Johnson was angry; angry that someone as determinedly clean-living as himself, with no obvious risk factors – he didn’t smoke, ate healthily, kept fit and had no family history of cardiovascular disease – had suffered a stroke.
“I did feel like: ‘Why did this happen to me, when I was doing all the right things?’” But within 24 hours he had gained a different perspective.
“It’s natural for anyone to go through that period of anger. I was pretty fortunate to get past that situation (the stroke), with an opportunity to completely recover, which is what I hoped to do.”
Johnson decided to put the same determination that he had brought to his athletics career into recovering from his stroke.
He brought a touch of his famous self-confidence to bear, too, telling Armine not only that he would recover, but that he would do it faster than anyone had done it before.
It was an arduous process, both physically and mentally. The first stage of his recovery involved a physiotherapist helping him to learn to walk again using a walking frame. Johnson half-laughs, half-winces at the memory.
“Ironically, the first day we covered about 200 metres – having been the world record-holder at that event, it wasn’t the most positive thing.”
He had clocked 19.32 seconds while breaking the world record in Atlanta. But the same distance that first day with the physio took 10 minutes.
How did a legendary athlete, a champion, a classic alpha male, deal with being so helpless? “I think about looking at myself in the mirror, struggling to hold a balance position for more than 10 seconds or struggling to coordinate my body when I used to be one of the best athletes in the world. But what that did for me is encourage me to channel that in the right way, [and believe] that if anyone can do this, I can.”
He learned – impressively quickly – to walk, then to walk in a balanced way, and then to be mobile, and then to get up and down stairs. Then he succeeded in eliminating his limp, although that took a month. Then he began working on regaining his strength, power and fine motor skills on his left side. He drew on a key lesson of his path to sporting glory: often progress comes in small, incremental steps.
In one of his early progress reports, he tweeted that, while his recovery was going well, relearning the very basics of movement was “gruelling”. It has been a journey of many emotions: confusion, anger, anxiety, fear, positivity and vulnerability. But by December, he says now, “I was almost back to what I would consider my normal. And now, eight months on, I’m 100% recovered.”
Since retiring from competitive track Johnson has acquired a reputation as an articulate and straight-talking commentator on athletics, and was a key member of the BBC’s punditry team at the past two Olympics. His main day-to-day job is running Michael Johnson Performance, a company that operates a training centre in Texas for up-and-coming athletes; he also works with sports clubs and federations worldwide.
But he has now taken on a new role, promoting awareness of stroke – stressing that if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. He is helping the Stroke Association to gain attention for its Rebuilding Lives campaign, which is using stroke survivors’ stories to bring home how random stroke is and the horrendous impact it can have.
There are more than 100,000 strokes a year in the UK; one every five minutes. In 2017, it claimed 29,855 lives. While fewer strokes are occuring, smoking, obesity and diabetes remain three major risk factors.
Research the Stroke Association undertook among the public revealed high levels of ignorance about even the fact that a stroke occurs in the brain, as well as a widespread lack of know-how about how to support survivors as they recover. Separate findings from a group of survivors uncovered awkward truths: many said they saw friends and family less often than they did before their stroke, or found that people spent less time with them than they used to.
Johnson has learned a lot about the condition that struck him down. So what do people need to know most about stroke? Anyone who thinks they may have had one should seek urgent medical attention and not wait for the symptoms to pass, he says.
“You’re not experiencing any pain or real discomfort, so you may be tempted not to go to the hospital. You may instead go: ‘Oh, I’ll just sleep this off. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.’ That could be catastrophic.” He emphasises that last word.
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Going to the ER might have saved him from a future of dependence and life in a wheelchair. The high-profile Fast campaign by Public Health England and the Stroke Association has the same goal of urging immediate action to help stroke sufferers.
His advice on how to minimise the danger of stroke is what any doctor or nurse would say. “Be your own case manager. Understand your own health, understand the risk factors and understand how you can take control and minimise the risk. Stop smoking if you are a smoker. Being overweight increases your risk so keep your weight down. Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Stay active.”
People with high blood pressure or high cholesterol are also at greater risk, and should speak to their doctors about the possibility of medication.
Johnson now takes aspirin, a statin, a blood-thinner and a drug to keep his blood pressure in healthy range. He is is acutely aware that, having had one stroke, he could easily have another.
After eight months and a host of medical tests, neither he nor his doctors know what caused his stroke – 30% of strokes have no obvious cause, he explains. Is that frustrating? “No. I mean, I can’t force an answer where there isn’t one. All I can do is do what I do, so I’m OK with that. I kind of have to be.”
Michael is supporting the Stroke Association’s Rebuilding Lives campaign. This advocates that, with the right support, stroke survivors can make the best possible recovery.
• This article was amended on 9 May 9, 2019. An earlier version referred to the Fast campaign as a British Heart Foundation initiative. This has been corrected.