In September 1997, “Hercules” actor Kevin Sorbo, then 38, was on top of the world. Not only was he starring as the strongest man in the world in the title role on the hit show “Hercules,” Sorbo was in the best shape of his life. Spending hours a day in the gym lifting weights and doing cardio, the beefy self-proclaimed lifelong ‘jock’ appeared invincible.
But in the blink of an eye a searing pain that shot down Sorbo’s left arm threatened his career and his life. The source of the pain, an aneurysm in Sorbo’s arm, led to him suffering three strokes.
Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. They’re also expensive. The CDC says in 2010, the cost of strokes in the U.S. was $53.9 billion. That includes payments made by Medicare, health insurance and money shelled out of patient’s pockets. And the cost is expected to balloon to more than $2.2 trillion in the next 40 years.
People at risk for stroke tend to be smokers, overweight, have high blood pressure and/or cholesterol, or be 65 and over. Sorbo was none of those things.
To raise awareness for strokes and provide inspiration for fellow stroke patients and their family, Sorbo, who at the urging of Sam, his wife of 13 years, penned a memoir “True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal – and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life.”
Read on for tips on how the father of two and man once seen as the strongest in the world reclaimed his physical and emotional strength.
The challenge: Putting on your own oxygen mask
It’s easy to sweep symptoms under the rug or brush them off, especially if you’re busy or are focused on caring for loved ones. I did that myself. I ignored a pain in my shoulder that started shooting down my left arm for almost two months. I blew it off because I’m a jock and was the type to ‘live through the pain.’ Plus I was focusing on touring to promote a movie at the time and was months away from getting married. I had a lot going on.
Even as I grew weaker and weaker in that arm I didn’t do anything. I now know I should have because the pain was a warning sign, as was a lump in my shoulder, that I had an aneurysm in my upper arm. When it started leaking, clots broke off and caused three separate strokes.
Conquer it: Put yourself first
You’re no good to your job or loved ones if you’re not here. And warning signs should be taken as just that: A warning. If the smoke detector went off in your house you wouldn’t ignore it, so if alarms go off in your body like unusual pains, sensations, etc., so consult an expert immediately.
The Challenge: Feeling sorry for yourself
I had to drop out of a movie because I couldn’t walk and had vision loss. And spending four months in rehab learning to walk again was tough mentally and physically. Even when I could walk, it was hard to go back to work for just an hour a day when I was used to working 14 hours a day.
So needless to say I felt quite sorry for myself and was absolutely miserable. I was depressed, but the medicine the doctor prescribed only made me feel worse, making me feel like I was even a failure at taking medication. I got pretty low, frankly, thought about suicide, too.
Conquer it: Develop a big head
My ego kept me going. I simply was not going to let this thing beat me. I was angry at it, and I was NOT about to let it win. Having someone who was on my side really helped. Sam, my wife, guided my rehab path, encouraging me, backing off when I needed her to. At the time I thought her optimism was annoying, but your own private cheerleader is really one of the most valuable things to have during a rehab. She wouldn’t permit my pessimism, always countering it with the positive point of view.
We tend to concentrate on the big things, anniversaries and milestones. When you are dealing with health issues, the focus naturally narrows, so I suggest celebrating the more minor improvements. My wife insisted that I recognize my small advances during my recovery. If you can shift focus to the small things, you’ll find more to be encouraged by, whereas the big picture may still be quite a disappointment. The mantra, “I am getting better and I am getting stronger” which I said to myself in the mirror every day helped me a great deal.
Having a purpose helped, too. Mine was going to work. Hercules saved lives in fiction, but it saved my life because it gave me something to aim for, to go back to. I’m grateful for that purpose.
The Challenge: Believing stereotypes
I’m the opposite of what doctors look for in stroke victims. I’ve never smoked, I didn’t have high cholesterol or blood pressure and I wasn’t obese or overweight. My doctors think my aneurysm may have existed since birth. And even though I never thought this could happen to me, I’m glad my wife and I knew signs of a stroke. That helped us realize I was having one. If we hadn’t I may have waited too long to go to the hospital for help.
Conquer it: Getting an education
Everyone, whether you’re at risk for a stroke or not, should learn the symptoms of stroke. That knowledge may save your life; it may save the life of a loved one or a stranger. But it’s always a smart thing to have the information in case you need it.