“It was a Friday just like any other Friday,” says WPDH-FM morning host Mark Cooper about a day last August. “I was getting ready to do an event down in Wappingers. I was about to get in the shower when I kind of passed out and banged myself against the radiator.” Cooper, then 48, crawled to his bedroom and put on his sleep apnea mask. “I was having a really hard time breathing. Then my son came in; he is only nine and he was kind of panicky. After that, my recollections are very vague. I was conscious but have no memory of it.”
That one day forever changed the life of “Coop,” a longtime regional radio favorite known for his gravelly voice and off-color humor. While he was quickly rushed to Poughkeepsie’s St. Francis Hospital — “I had no idea what was happening until they told me I had had a stroke” — the original prognosis was grim. “They thought that I was going to be paralyzed on the left side and not be able to see. My wife told me that she was driving home that night and she was trying to figure out what nursing home to put me in.”
Stroke — when blood flow to the brain stops — has traditionally been thought of as an affliction of the elderly, but Cooper is among a growing number of people under the age of 60 to suffer this dangerous condition. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among men age 35 to 44, hospitalizations for stroke increased 47 percent between 1994 and 2007; the increase was 36 percent for women of the same age. While rising rates of obesity and high blood pressure among younger people may well be contributing to this phenomenon, strokes can actually occur in anyone — even young children. The consequences can be devastating and include paralysis, speech problems, memory loss, and even death.
Poughkeepsie resident Mark Cooper, back on the job at WPDH-FM
Seeking immediate medical help is imperative in ameliorating some of these consequences, or even saving lives. But the problem for many younger stroke victims — like Cooper — is that they often don’t even realize what is happening. Most strokes are painless and a recent study indicates that many younger stroke victims are often misdiagnosed with less serious ailments such as migraines or seizures — and sent home without proper treatment. But luckily for Cooper, his wife — a nurse on the stroke team at St. Francis — immediately recognized the signs of a stroke. “She put it together pretty quickly. She saw me and called 911. The guys from the ambulance and fire department were here immediately, and luckily, I only live five minutes from the hospital.”
After an initial CT scan, doctors quickly realized that Cooper was suffering from the most common form of stroke: ischemic, which is the diagnosis in 87 percent of stroke cases, occurs when an artery is blocked by a blood clot or plaque. (A hemorrhagic stroke indicates that a blood vessel in the brain has burst. While occurring less frequently, it actually results in more than 30 percent of all stroke deaths.) “The doctors think that the clot had been there for a little while and that it had kind of shifted,” says Cooper, who was immediately put on a fast-acting, super blood thinner.
By the next day, Cooper was showing rapid improvement. “I had some friends come and I was able to joke around with them and my speech wasn’t slurred. My doctor said he was amazed at how well I was doing.” A few days later, Cooper watched Jeopardy from his hospital bed. “I’m a very good Jeopardy player, and I did really well. I thought, Okay — I’ve got this.”
Cooper stayed in the hospital for 13 days and was back on the radio 16 days after suffering the stroke. “Originally, I wasn’t supposed to go back on the air until mid-January,” he says. Since then, Cooper has completely changed his lifestyle by quitting his pack and a half per day smoking habit and losing more than 70 pounds. “I have a little bit of a stammer every now and again, and a little bit of weakness in my left leg. But I’ve really put my focus on being a better person, a healthier person, a better father,” he says. “Most people don’t come out nearly as well as I did. I can’t even begin to say how incredibly lucky I am.”
Few people know the warning signs of stroke, which is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. Learning them and acting FAST when they occur can save a life. Learn the National Stroke Association’s FAST test:
F = FACE Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A = ARMS Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S = SPEECH Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?
T = TIME If you observe any of these signs call 911 immediately.