On Feb. 6, 2005, Bruschi led the Patriots to a 24-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXIX, with six solo tackles and a timely fourth-quarter interception against the Philadelphia Eagles. His wife Heidi recently had given birth to their third child, Dante. And Bruschi had been selected to play in his first Pro Bowl, the NFL’s ultimate honor. “Right then,” Bruschi says, “my life couldn’t have been any better.”
But 10 days later, at 4 a.m. on Feb. 16, Bruschi awoke in pain. “My left arm and leg felt numb, and I had a severe headache,” he says. “I told myself to tough it out and try to sleep it off. That was exactly the wrong thing to do.” Some five hours later—when his oldest child, 5-year-old Tedy Jr., bounced into bed and startled him—Bruschi realized he had lost his left field of vision in both eyes. “That really scared me,” he says, “so I asked my wife to call 9-1-1.”
After Bruschi had a CAT scan at Massachusetts General, a neurologist told him he’d suffered a stroke. “I thought he had to be joking,” Bruschi says. “I was 31 years old, in the best shape of my life. I thought a stroke only happened to elderly people. But I learned a stroke can hit anyone at any time, and if it does, you need to get to a hospital as fast as you can.”
Each year, about 700,000 Americans suffer a stroke—a sudden injury to the brain caused by a blood vessel bursting or becoming blocked. “Your brain needs blood and oxygen,” explains Dr. Larry Goldstein, chair of the Stroke Council of the American Heart Association. “And when it doesn’t get them, it begins to die.”
Stroke causes 157,000 deaths, making it the nation’s No. 3 killer, behind heart disease and cancer. Fully one-third of victims are under 65, and even children can suffer a stroke.
“If you remember only one thing about stroke,” Dr. Goldstein advises, “remember to call 9-1-1 as soon as symptoms begin. That’s why we say ‘time lost is brain lost.’” Patients who get to a hospital in the first three hours after the onset of a stroke may be treated with a clot-busting drug, which can lessen the stroke’s severity and improve recovery.
In Bruschi’s case, a blood clot had passed through a small hole in the upper chamber of his heart and lodged in his brain. Since he was diagnosed after the three-hour window, the drug couldn’t help. “If the clot had moved a few more millimeters, it could have killed me,” Bruschi says. “In a way, I was lucky.”
Still, Bruschi took stock of how much he’d lost. “At first, Heidi had to take care of everything,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even pick up my own children. I figured I’d never play football again. But what really bothered me was: Could I ever be a capable husband and father again?”
Following a stroke, 50-70% of victims regain “functional independence.” “Many people make a full recovery,” Dr. Goldstein says. “But the amount of recovery depends on the severity of the stroke. In general, younger people like Tedy tend to improve more quickly. And the more fit a person is beforehand likely affects how well they’ll do with rehabilitation.”
Initially, Bruschi’s goals were modest. Working with a physical therapist, he learned how to walk without stumbling and to throw a ball. These baby steps might have discouraged many pro athletes, but Bruschi embraced every bit of progress. “I tried to celebrate the small victories,” he says. Adds Heidi, “Tedy approached the healing process with great optimism. He viewed every day as a second chance at life.” Indeed, when the American Stroke Association surveyed patients to identify the “secret ingredients to successful stroke survival,” they found that acceptance of the situation, staying positive and having support were key.
On Oct. 30, 2005, Tedy once again took the field as a Patriot. “I got unanimous clearance from every physician who examined me,” he says. Bruschi made 10 tackles in a victory over Buffalo and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for the 2005 season.
This weekend, presuming a wrist Bruschi injured in training camp has healed, the emotional heart of the Patriots’ defense will take the field again, beating beneath a No. 54 jersey. “I feel like it’s a victory for all stroke survivors every time I put on my uniform,” says Bruschi. “I want people to know that, if I can come back after a stroke and play pro football, you can do whatever it takes to get your life back too.”
After suffering a stroke, Super Bowl champ Tedy Bruschi discovered…You Can Get Your Life Back!