30-year-old stroke survivor completes half marathon just 11 months after neurosurgery

After Russell Deakins experienced a stroke at age 30, he was determined to get back on the path to fitness. Eleven months later, he accomplished his goal.

As Russell Deakins crossed the finish line of the 2023 Urban Bourbon Half Marathon in Louisville, his eyes welled up with tears.

“My only goal that day was to finish,” Russell said. “I got super emotional for the last 100 yards, because I could see the finish line and I knew I achieved it.”

Years ago, this would not have been the same feat.

Russell was used to running half-marathons. He’d completed the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon four years straight from 2015 to 2018. He knew what his body could handle.

But this race was much different.

Emotions overcame the 31-year-old father of two, because he thought back to where he was almost a year earlier — lying in a hospital bed, barely able to stand, let alone walk.

Thirteen miles, at that time, seemed impossible. He’d just had a stroke.

‘Today’s the day; something doesn’t feel right’

Russell woke up on Nov. 30, 2022, and immediately knew something was off.

“I woke up [the day of my stroke] and I remember telling my wife, ‘Today’s the day, I’m going to have a migraine today; something doesn’t feel right,’” Russell said.

He called off work and stayed home to lie low. He hoped the rest would help relieve the migraine. However, after helping his wife and children out the door to work and day care, nausea overtook him and he ran to the bathroom. After vomiting, Russell couldn’t stand up.

Panicking, he crawled to his cell phone in the living room and called his father. Within minutes, Russell and his dad were in an ambulance on their way to Norton Audubon Hospital.

“I called [my dad] first, before 911,” Russell said. “But that was the telltale sign something was wrong. I was scared, because I was 30 and couldn’t stand up, but I knew I was going to be in the right hands eventually.”

Russell was admitted and treated for a vertebral artery dissection, or a tear in the tissue layers of the artery. In Russell’s case, this occurred in his neck. Doctors believed his violent vomiting caused his neck to bend in a way that allowed the artery to tear. Furthermore, as Russell’s vessel tried to repair itself, his blood clotted and a part of the clot broke off and traveled to the cerebellum, causing a stroke.

Although rare, vertebral artery dissections are one of the more common causes of stroke in patients younger than 45.

“I was lying on my side,” Russell said. “And the doctor’s talking to me, but kind of through me to my parents and wife. And my parents said, just as calm as could be, I rolled over after the doctor walked out and said, ‘Did they just say stroke?’ That’s when the wheels started turning [about what happened to me].”

A few days later, on Dec. 2, Russell’s prognosis worsened.

His brain began to swell, and he needed emergency surgery. That’s when he met Tom L. Yao, M.D., endovascular neurosurgeon at Norton Neuroscience Institute.

“It’s like when you sprain your ankle,” Dr. Yao said. “It doesn’t hurt the first day, [but] it hurts the second and third days, [because] that’s when the swelling happens. And so for him, that swelling occurred and it blocked some fluid passages.”

Because of the swelling, Dr. Yao needed to perform a decompressive craniectomy in two parts. The first part, performed at Norton Audubon Hospital, included inserting a tube — called a ventriculostomy — to drain the cerebrospinal fluid from the brain to an external bag, allowing immediate relief of pressure. The second stage of the surgery is more permanent and included removing a window of bone from the skull and opening the covering of the brain, allowing it to swell outward, thus protecting the brain stem and saving Russell’s life.

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First, though, Russell needed an ambulance ride across town to Norton Brownsboro Hospital, a certified Comprehensive Stroke Center with specialized equipment for the delicate cranial surgery. Before the trip, Dr. Yao made sure to let Russell know he would be with him every step of the way.

“I wasn’t completely under,” Russell said. “And I remember he tapped me on the shoulder a few times and said, ‘Mr. Deakins, Dr. Yao here. I can’t finish the surgery here. We need to go to Brownsboro.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to be there.’”

When Russell arrived at Norton Brownsboro Hospital, and before he was placed under general anesthesia, he was tapped on the shoulder again.

“He said, ‘Dr. Yao here; I told you I’d be here for you,’” Russell said. “I trusted him. I trusted everything he said, but he took the time to prove that he was there for me.”

“I think part of it, is when people are going through all of these things, I see those types of situations a lot,” Dr. Yao said. “So I can see and understand what they might be going through. But for them, it’s the first time they’ve ever gone through it. And if you imagine, that’s nerve-wracking. Your body’s not working the way it wants to. So I like to live by the rule, ‘you treat others like you want to be treated.’ And so understanding that, it’s just what you do.”

‘It’s joyful. It is recovery.’

Surgery was a success, and Russell began his long journey of rehabilitation.

He spent a few weeks in the hospital, learning to walk again. Eventually, he was transferred to an outpatient rehab facility, where he rebuilt the strength in his body to once again become independent.

In February, while still weak and using a walker, Russell set a lofty goal for himself.

“Post-stroke, I asked my physical therapist if 10 months out was achievable to do a half-marathon, and I believe she said it was a good long-term goal,” Russell said. “So I signed up that week.”

He began to train, slowly.

In May, Russell returned to work full time, while continuing to stay active. He eventually learned to walk without help, and could see his goals more clearly than ever.

Then in October, 11 months after surgery, he put on his runner’s bib and completed his goal. He crossed the finish line at the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon.

“It makes me happy,” Russell said. “It’s joyful. It is recovery. [I wanted] to prove to myself that I could do it, to set a goal and achieve it.”

“It’s just quite amazing to me,” Dr. Yao said. “Russell and his family are all just wonderful people, and I know how much he’s been working. When you see somebody that has gone through so much adversity accomplish what they want to do, it’s unexplainable and very heartwarming. And it just shows him and his family that the sky’s the limit. You can come back from the brink of death to accomplish your goals, whatever they are.”

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