Actor uses humor and vulnerability to share what life is like after 3 hits

Like many actors in Los Angeles, Michael Shutt had a second job. As a bartender at a restaurant, he had flexible hours and a reliable income with benefits.

Shutt worked the day shift so he could devote his evenings to a theater company where he performed, directed, produced, helped develop scripts and more.

During a busy afternoon tending to the bar, he felt something like an electric jolt rip through his body. Suddenly, he couldn’t control his left hand anymore. His mind was confused. He had difficulty speaking.

Several colleagues noticed that something was wrong. Shutt couldn’t explain it. Everyone continued to work.

Although his left hand remained numb and his mind confused, he worked the next day. The next day he played kickball. He was a pitcher known for his accuracy; that day, he gave up a run by walking the first four kickers.

The next evening, a Sunday, when he went to open a bottle of wine, he could not remember or know how. It finally sent him to the emergency room – Monday morning.

Shutt’s blood pressure was dangerously high. He was sent to the emergency room.

The results of an MRI showed that he had had an ischemic stroke. He was 48 years old.

Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke, in which a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked either by a clot or by a buildup of fatty deposits and cholesterol.

Shutt hadn’t seen a doctor in years and didn’t know he had high blood pressure, a leading cause of stroke. He was given medicine to control his blood pressure. After a few days in the hospital, his stroke deficits were mostly gone and he went home.

“If something like this happens again, call 911 immediately and tell them you think you’re having a stroke,” a nurse told her as she was discharged from the hospital.

“Time is the brain,” she added.

Shutt treated the stroke as a red flag. He cleaned up his diet, exercised regularly and lost 20 pounds in a few months.

Three and a half months later, in September 2015, Shutt had an upper body workout and ran 3 miles on the treadmill. Walking down to the gym, her vision began to swirl. He grabbed the railing and made his way to the door.

His first instinct was to go to his car, but he couldn’t see well enough to find it. He used his key fob to activate his car’s headlights and horn. He put the key in the ignition, then said to himself, “You shouldn’t be driving.

Time is the brain, he remembered. He called 911.

“I think I’m going to have a stroke,” he told the 911 operator.

At the hospital, Shutt received anti-clot medication. Almost immediately, he could see again.

Doctors found no reason for his second stroke, but they kept Shutt in the hospital for tests. As time went on, he got a third hit.

Over the next week, Shutt began to familiarize himself with his new reality. He had severe double vision. He could barely move the left side of his body. He could feel words forming in his brain, but they weren’t coming out of his mouth. He also suffered from prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, meaning he couldn’t recognize people’s faces.

Feeling devastated and confused, he was transferred to an acute care facility to work with all kinds of specialists.

“I’m going to be the best stroke patient ever,” he told himself.

Brandon Carrette was among the many friends who visited Shutt. They had met while playing kickball and bonded by their origins in the Boston area. Carrette, about two decades younger, considered Shutt an older brother.

Carrette is also a registered nurse. When he first saw his friend in the hospital, he knew Shutt would be facing “a new normal”. He became one of Shutt’s biggest boosters.

“Take ‘can’t’ out of your vocabulary and focus on what you can do,” Carrette told his friend. “Note your small victories each day and you will see progress.”

If Shutt remembered a doctor’s name, that was a win. Walk 10 feet alone? Add it to the list.

His belief in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt, sustained him.

About a month later, Shutt was released. He returned home and continued his outpatient therapy. His parents moved in with him for six months to support him.

The following summer – about a year after his first stroke – Shutt completed his outpatient rehab with mixed results. He could walk, but his vision was not improving and he could barely use his left hand. He had moments of confusion and moments of great fatigue.

When the doctors told him he would probably never regain full use of his left hand, he set out to prove them wrong.

Every day he was typing. At first, his left hand could only last a few minutes. Over time, it evolved into an hour, then longer.

Shutt had already started writing down his thoughts as a way to process them. Now, he’s started typing short, first-person stories filled with humor, love, heartache, and vulnerability. He started running them, memorizing each line. He felt purpose and passion.

Calling on his theater friends, Shutt then created a 90-minute show called “A Swimming Lesson”, with himself.

“It’s classic Michael,” Carrette said. “He can find humor in the negative and then express deep feelings about it. It’s amazing to watch him blossom creatively. He blows my mind.”

Performance is Shutt’s way of reframing his experience, his limits (such as his vision) and his feelings.

“Having the stroke was hard enough,” he said. “What no one has prepared me for are the moments of isolation and loneliness that come with such an invisible wound.”

Shutt hopes her performance can raise awareness of stroke symptoms and the idea that “time is the brain”. He also wants to send the message of what stroke survivors can do.

“I refused to let stroke define me,” he said. “Instead, I chose to use the stroke as an opportunity to redefine myself.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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