By Diane Daniel, American Heart Association News
Patrick tried to move and couldn’t. He called out to his fiancé, Michelle Ates, waking her. She ran in, and saw that Patrick’s left leg was swayed back, as if frozen mid-stride. She helped him down on the floor and started asking questions. Michelle asked him to raise his arms. Patrick tried but his left arm swung by his side.
Patrick’s mind felt cloudy, like he’d just been knocked out.
At 6-foot-4 and topping 350 pounds, Patrick was a big, tough-looking guy. In his past, he fulfilled the image. But as he approached his 42nd birthday, he was working with youth in Austin, Texas, both in his job with the city’s parks department and through a basketball program he and Michelle started. He was helping people. Now, he was the one who needed help. “Am I having a stroke or something?” he asked Michelle. She thought he was. She called 911.
Patrick started singing the Macklemore song “Thrift Shop,” repeating “I’m gonna pop some tags” over and over. He remembers still singing as he was being put into the ambulance. A vessel in Patrick’s brain had ruptured, sending blood into the surrounding area. This is called a hemorrhagic stroke. Doctors considered his case severe. They braced Michelle for the likelihood that Patrick would not survive. The next thing Patrick remembers after singing in the ambulance is waking up in the hospital three days later. He was paralyzed on his left side (he’s left-handed) and had trouble speaking.He wasn’t sure surviving was a good thing. Feeling hopeless and helpless, he told his family, “Y’all need to just go ahead and kill me.”
The timing made this setback seem even more devastating. In addition to having gotten his life in order, he knew something was wrong with his health. He had been scheduled to visit a cardiologist the very next day. Patrick’s concerns were many: He’d inexplicably gained 40 pounds between August and December; despite taking medication to control his high blood pressure and being active, the numbers had skyrocketed; and his breathing had felt more labored. If only he’d seen the doctor, maybe things would be different, he thought.
He spent two weeks in intensive care before being moved to a regular hospital room. Days later – on Jan. 18, four days before the day he and Michelle had planned to wed – they were married in the hospital by her father, a minister. Around the same time, Patrick started thinking more about their basketball team. “I want to get out of here and go back to coaching my kids,” he told Michelle. “I gotta get going again.”
Patrick put his all into speech and physical rehabilitation, first in the hospital and then in a rehab facility he was transferred to in mid-February. When he was discharged to go home, in late March, he was still using a wheelchair. By June, Patrick was walking with a cane. That was in 2014. Now, he walks on his own, though slowly.
“My first steps were with my wife and those kids,” he said. “When I’d walk into practice, they’d come by my side and help me along.” Patrick and Michelle ran the team through 2018, disbanding it once the youngest members graduated from high school. These days, Patrick has someone else by his side – Kiki Falana, a Blue Lacy dog the couple adopted from a shelter in 2018. “She wouldn’t go to anybody, but she was on Patrick like glue,” Michelle said.
Patrick is on disability and can no longer work. Though he can make a fist with his left hand and write shakily, he can’t feel his hand. He also has spasticity in his left limbs and digits. Michelle, who does contract tech work from home, helps as much as Patrick needs. “I don’t have to get him dressed, but I do have to tie his shoes,” she said with a laugh. “But he’s definitely his own person.”
He recently underwent eye muscle surgery to improve vision problems caused by the stroke. He’s hoping a second surgery will correct the issue. His new goal is to get his weight, now around 360, closer to 300. For “Operation Drop 50,” he’s going to the gym regularly, lifting weights and walking, and following a low-carb diet, which he and Michelle started after the stroke. Nonetheless, he’s earned an associate degree in general studies at Austin Community College and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology leadership at Lipscomb University.
“It’s already an extreme accomplishment because of where I am now,” he said, “but I’m not finished.”
Meet Patrick and Michelle at the 2021 Austin Heart and Stroke Walk on October 16, 2021. For more information about the walk, please visit austinheartwalk.org.