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'I am writing this to perhaps help somone:' Longtime NDSU athletic department employee recovering from stroke

by Mike McFeely

Jeff Schwartz has been a fixture in the athletic department at North Dakota State for nearly a quarter of a century. He is the sports information director, meaning he is sort of a public-relations expert for the athletic teams. SIDs, as they're called, compile statistics during games, send out press releases, arrange media interviews, write and compile game programs, maintain web sites ... and a million other things when it comes to gathering and disseminating information about athletic teams at colleges. And, yes, that includes ALL sports teams, not just the ones that get the most headlines like football and basketball.

Jeff was absent during the ultra-successful Bison football season. He is a behind-the-scenes guy who we in the media know far better than the general public, so his absence was necessarily noticeable to all the fans who showed up at the Fargodome for each home game. He had suffered a mini-stroke last summer and was slowly recovering. Those of us who've worked with and been friends and acquaintances with Jeff for many years knew what happened by talking with mutual friends. We were told Jeff and his family wanted privacy while they worked through the recovery process.

Earlier this week, Jeff broke his public silence on his medical situation by writing a long, personal Facebook post. It was an amazing, informative read to find out what a 56-year-old man has had to go through to try and get his life back to "normal."

I texted Jeff to ask if I could re-post the entire Facebook post on my blog and he graciously said yes. 

So, in its entirety, here is Jeff Schwartz's post on his mini-stroke and the long road back from it:

 Jeff Schwartz

I see the ceiling. It's a high ceiling. Still work to do.

“I see the ceiling. It’s a high ceiling. Still work to do,” was an unattributed quotation I saw while reading recently. It has helped and here’s why. I started writing this first-person account of a life-changing experience Dec. 31, five months to the day when I suffered a TIA (transient ischemic attack)/mini-stroke during the middle of the night of July 31. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is when blood flow to a part of the brain stops for a brief period of time. The symptoms of a TIA are the same as a stroke and my list included dizziness, change in alertness, changes in feeling, confusion or loss of memory, difficulty reading or writing, lack of coordination and balance, numbness or tingling on one side of the body and trouble saying or understanding words.

I am writing this to perhaps help someone who has gone through or is dealing with a similar experience or situation. To say this event has been humbling would be a tremendous understatement. I am so thankful there was no paralysis, no speech impairment. I didn’t realize that I had a brain injury until I was told in October. If I was told, I didn’t remember or probably didn’t want to remember. I picked up the nickname, “Scarecrow” (Wizard of Oz), and was told, “You’re kind of like NDSU’s ‘Regarding Henry’ (movie with Harrison Ford).” I was living life like one of those Far Side cartoons I liked so well. There were many days I looked like “Dude” from The Big Lebowski. I liked it better when I was “Heisenberg” from Breaking Bad.

Improvement was and still is a slow-moving process. Bottom line is that I need to take care of myself a heckuva lot better. I am drinking more water, eating healthier and exercising. Surprisingly, I can count on my hands, the number of Mountain Dews I have had since the event. There were many things I now realize I took for granted during my 24 years as a sports information director at North Dakota State and eight years at Mount Vernon Nazarene University . I returned to work part-time at NDSU on Nov. 12, 4-hours per day, and received an upgrade to 28 hours per week on Dec. 31. The medical staff said they expect me to recover 100 percent from my TIA/mini-stroke.

Reflecting back to the event, I was awakened by a sharp pain to the top of my skull in the wee hours of July 31. It felt like I was hit with a ball bat or more specifically, a ballpeen hammer. You know that annoying pain you get when you hit your knee on a table leg or strike your elbow right on the ‘funny bone’. I thought it was part of a dream. I went back to sleep. The pain returned a few hours later, but I also had a sharp pain up and down my left arm with tingling and numbness – the pain centralized in the middle of my left bicep and left my arm somewhat limp. I could move the arm but couldn’t feel myself grip anything. The most alarming fact was that I had numbness to the left side of my face, from my ear to below my eye to under my chin. It was like I received a shot of Novocain. I looked in the bathroom mirror and touched the left side of my face with my right hand. My head was pounding with a dull ache with a pair of knots behind both of my eyes. I felt like my head was in the clouds, the sensation of being intoxicated and/or high. I wasn’t moving well at all.

I was frightened. My wife drove me to the emergency room. The doctors and nurses at Sanford Health were great. I had never been to the hospital for anything other than stitches. With Cindy by my side, I went through a full battery of tests. My CAT scan was clean. My blood work was good. I was checked over thoroughly. I went for my first MRI. I felt like I was stuffed into a test tube for the longest 25 minutes of my life. I was released on the afternoon of Aug. 1. Once I hit the pillow, I went right to sleep. I was checked on periodically by Cindy for a 24-36 hour period. I was physically weak and mentally fatigued. I found moving around was a chore and I wasn’t moving fast. My top and most productive speed over the next couple of weeks was that of the old man that comic Tim Conway portrayed on the CBS variety show, “The Carol Burnett Show”. I was out of rhythm, both in mind and body. That fact was unfortunately and painfully pounded home during my first follow-up Aug. 8, when I couldn’t do the simple heel-to-toe (sobriety) balance test without resembling a Weeble, who was wobbling.

I wouldn’t regain my balance until Aug. 26 when I completed the sobriety test without wobbling and received a high-five from Cindy. I found I had trouble doing a number of things that I took for granted. I couldn’t focus, concentrate on anything. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I had trouble gathering my thoughts. I had to listen real hard and took a long time to process information in a conversation. My mind was empty and I would just go into a blank stare. My mind would wander off into Never Never Land. Anything would distract me. Noise and activity around me would frustrate and aggravate me. I would become angry, irritable, and that frustration would lead to more anger. Bitterly, I would say, “I’m broken, don’t talk to me.”

The world was moving too fast around me. I would find my happy place by just staying still and quiet. Reading was a chore. No focus and concentration. I had trouble processing information. Sentences were just words. Conversations were short. Composing information was a challenge. I was writing out by hand what I would type in an email. I would rehearse phone conversations complete with bullet points. Watching television proved to be an adventure -- especially when things were moving fast with flashing lights, panoramic shots and that would send me into sensory overload.

My brain wasn’t processing all the different things I was seeing. If I didn’t have a headache, my mind and my body felt like it did when I was intoxicated and high during my high school years. My head was in the clouds and I couldn’t break out of the haze or fog for more than 15-30 minutes at a time. I could take a trip without leaving the chair or the couch. I had trouble with my long and short term memory. I couldn’t multi-task. I used to pride myself with the ability to handle or juggle many things at once. Now, I had trouble putting one thought forward, focusing on one thing and then acting on it.

I know I’ve always been a bit of a madcap and zany, but this was certainly to a whole new level. Driving a car has proved to be an adventure. There were definitely too many things going on – coming from different directions. The brief trip to the Stop-N-Go for the Raspberry Ice Tea that I craved was like driving through Chicago. Even being a passenger in the car was a rush. I don’t drive much yet. I know the way to my office at the Bison Sports Arena, Stop-N-Go and the doctor’s office.

Talking on the cell phone is mentally taxing and still leads to some monumental headaches. I was good for only a minute or two, if that, early on. It was hard telling my daughter Lainey about what happened to me when she was across the country in North Carolina. It worried me because I knew how this would make her feel. It was hard telling my sisters about what happened but those conversations aided me later with the emotionally-charged phone calls with both sets of parents that drained me like a battery on a sub-zero night. I made the decision to get off e-mail and Twitter, and as I look back, it was one of the better choices that I made during the recovery period. It wasn’t easy. I was a person who had the television on, the radio going, 3 or 4 windows open on my computer screen and always sending/checking messages or texts on the ‘smart’ phone.

Not so surprisingly, soon after I cut back, my brain functions slowly began to respond. I finally was giving my brain a chance to rest and relax without the constant barrage of information. Sometime in September, I began to experience what I would describe as “VH1 Pop-up Videos” in my head when I was trying to read, talk with someone, watch television or listen to the radio/iPod. My son, a paramedic, thought maybe the areas of my brain affected by the injury were getting the blood flow back. The sensation I was feeling was just like the ‘pop’ you would hear when watching the little information window appear during a VH1 music video. It was rather cool and stimulating – my brain was rebooting.

The headaches were nothing like I have encountered during my lifetime, particularly the frequency and the intensity. I had better luck with those headaches when I would attack them early with Tylenol and rest. My headaches would range from sharp pains or dull ache, from the top of the skull and move around to the top left or right to the middle left or right. There was no rhyme or reason on what would trigger the headaches, where I would feel pain and when I would experience those knee-buckling stabs.

My brain was slowly reconnecting the dots. My daily walks around El Zagel Golf Course have been good for several reasons. No. 1: it was the physical activity. It was hard at first. It was quite humbling for someone, who would be able cover a number of miles during a game day or even a practice. The first week and a half, it was trips down my street to look at the golf course. Then I was able to get my bearings enough to complete about a quarter of the walk, slowly working my way to halfway around the course and then eventually completing the circuit – rounding the bases, so to speak. I was walking in rhythm and moving in style. No. 2: it was listening to music, QFM96 out of Columbus or Dan Michaels on the Eagle 106.9 (my walks were in the morning). That’s where the music provided a spark and rekindled the long term memory, from my childhood, my teenage years, college days and other significant events in my life.

My short term memory was also slowly improving. But things weren’t all warm and fuzzy for brownies and fairies in the world of making progress and improvement. Patience and ‘don’t overdo it’ were the words I heard on a daily basis. I was told there’s no magic pill to make things all better. You have to watch yourself. And that meant for virtually everything. Rest is the best thing for a brain injury. When I would overdo it and I did on several occasions, both my mind and body would tell me loud and clear. I didn’t think this event would last as long as it did, and the progress and improvement has been painstakingly slow.

This event was and still is quite humbling, and it probably will be for a long time to come. A neuro-pysch exam told me that my brain functions were okay, “You’re just a little slow right now,” in late October after an exhausting day and a half of testing. I was above average in a couple of areas for people in my age group, within average range in the rest. Surprisingly, working with numbers didn’t bother me. My question is where was I sitting before the brain injury? My challenge has been and continues to be regaining the confidence in the God-given abilities I was blessed with, whatever those abilities are.

I am thankful there was no paralysis. I am thankful I regained my balance. I am thankful my thought processes are improving, the sorting out and the organizing of information. To be honest, in mid-September, I began to feel sorry for myself saying, “Why did this happen to me?” or “What if my head doesn’t clear or process information?” or “What if the headaches don’t stop?” I lost my drive and my passion. I felt guilty for letting my job, my co-workers, my student-athletes, my coaches and most importantly my family down. That feeling changed dramatically after my wife Cindy and I engaged in a good old-fashioned, loud discussion. She reminded me on what is important. Once I accepted the situation, did as instructed and turned things over to God, the train moved forward without encountering as many peaks and valleys. Slowly, I did unblock my ears, resist stubbornness and became more patient with everything I would do.

I began to make strides, small as they would be. In mid-October, I was able to complete reading an entire long magazine article and comprehend what I read. Then a few days later, I completed the book “Battle Ready” by Tom Clancy that I had started before the event. A week later, I completed the book “Playing for Pizza” by John Grisham. I began to text and call family members. My head was clearing for longer stretches. The headaches weren’t coming as frequently and lessened in intensity. I was picking up the pace with my walk around the El Zagel Golf Course each day and I began to feel stronger. I was beginning to regain my rhythm, my swag (as much as a 56-year old white male could). It was time to take things for a test drive and move forward.

“Change, ain’t nothin’ stays the same. Unchained, yeah ya hit the ground runnin’… Van Halen.” I am thankful that I was able and had the opportunity to return to work at North Dakota State on Nov. 12. However, there was apprehension and frankly, I was scared to come back. One thing I didn’t want to do was upset the apple cart. I didn’t want to screw up any team chemistry that would exist. Most of all, I was afraid I would embarrass myself. I felt like I would enter the freeway traveling 55 mph in the passing lane.

My arrival back after a 3-1/2 month lay-off has been eye-opening. I came back part-time, 4-hours a day, working in the mornings. Mornings have been better for me throughout the recovery period. My brain has been adjusting to the focus and concentration needed to tackle the computer-related tasks I am doing. This job is more than re-learning the backend of the web site or the phone system, creating in Word or InDesign, using Photoshop or figuring out Stat Crew. Sports information is about the interaction with people, in person and face-to-face. I have missed talking to the student-athletes and hope they can understand why I was silent for so long.

Following my doctor’s appointment on Dec. 31, I am currently working two full-time days and three 4-hour days. I am growing tired of filling out the employee leave slips. I plan on taking the brain for a spin over the next couple of weeks to a basketball game to see how it does processing all the information involved in being around a large group (more than 8-10 people) in a confined setting of an arena. My brain tends to go into sensory overload in group settings – an example, Christmas shopping at the mall in December. With all the lights, the activity of people walking around and the conversations going on made me stop after about 45 minutes. Chris laughed, “You kept asking me if I wanted to stop, and asking me if I was ready to quit.” It was me. The trip to the mall was a little too much.

In this age of social media, my wife, my son and his fiancé JC, and my daughter Lainey with boyfriend Ryan did an exceptional job of keeping my condition off Facebook and Twitter. NDSU was limited to what it could say because of HIPAA. That was fine because at the time and until the past couple of weeks I didn’t have the mental and physical energy to deal with explaining this situation with other people. This event has been a revelation and has taught me a great deal. You have to take care of your body and you have to find a release. If you don’t find that release your body will stage an uprising and revolt. My job is not the most important thing. There were many things that led to this event, so to identify one or two things that did would be pointless. I know one thing for certain I don’t want another event like this.

It has brought back memories of my Grandpa Miller, who had several full blown strokes that left him bed-ridden for months at a time. He walked with a limp and his speech was impaired. I spent a great deal of time with him when I was growing up. That’s where my love of sports was born. Now I realize Grandpa Miller provided me with more than that. I can hear my Grandpa, seeing him point his finger at me saying, “Jeffy, one day at a time, one day at a time.” And if something would go wrong for him, he’d say, “So what”. Back then I always thought he was brave and courageous as a Columbus Firefighter. However, dealing with my little episode made my admiration for Grandpa Miller grew by leaps and bounds.

One of the highlights of the recovery process came in December when I received a phone call from ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso. Lee had unknowingly provided me with a great deal of inspiration during my recovery. I remember Lee Corso back when he brought his Indiana University team to face Ohio State when Woody Hayes was coaching. I was looking to get his email address and just wanted to thank him. However, Lee, in his unique way, provided me with a 10-minute pep talk.

I know my neuropsychologist won’t like this, but I did Lumosity.com. What a humbling experience that was. Boy, did I feel dumb when I started with a score of 338 with my Brain Performance Index (in my age category). I am currently standing at 1,010. According to the web site, the BPI is a proprietary, scaled measure of your top scores in each Lumosity Brain Area. Because scoring systems vary from game to game, BPI helps compare relative strengths and weaknesses across game that challenge different cognitive abilities (Speed, memory, attention, flexibility, problem solving).

This was written from my chicken scratch notes and bullet points when my head would clear up infrequently in the early going. It is a composite of what I have been experiencing over the past 5-1/2 months. I wrote this reflection out longhand first -- just like the old days of writing term papers at West High School, John Wesley College and Mount Vernon Nazarene. I’ve typed it into Microsoft Word first, a far cry from when I just hop on the computer and just crank away. The story has gone through several revisions and has been edited from top to bottom many times.

Special thanks to my family, my friends, Terry Peterson and Sanford Health Northside Clinic staff, Sanford Health (ER, hospital staff, neurological team), North Dakota State athletics and human resources, Prairie Heights Community Church, and the PHCC small group led by John and Kay Blair.