David McIntee is a competitive biker. A runner. Health conscious. Fit.
But last spring, even his good health couldn’t save him from a life-threatening condition.
The symptoms started mildly enough.
“Last April and May I had a lot of fluid in my lungs,” said McIntee, 64. “I was having a hard time running or doing pretty much anything. I thought it was bronchitis.”
After a couple of weeks with no relief, he saw a doctor.
“He said there were a lot of allergens in the air that spring,” the Kentwood, Michigan, resident said.
He started on an allergy medication and continued on with life as he knew it. He’d go out running. Training for a half-marathon. And biking.
But he’d grow so winded he often couldn’t finish.
On May 16, he worked out at the Calvin College track.
“I was about six laps into it and I started coughing,” McIntee said. “I was basically down on my hands and knees because I was coughing so hard. I was that way for about 10 minutes.”
Ever the determined one, McIntee pressed past that episode to log a few more laps.
“I ran a little bit more, but slower,” he said.
Three days later, as he packed his bike on the back of his car for a weekend bicycle race up north, he felt dizzy. He didn’t think much of it.
Vertigo, he thought.
“I went back in the basement to get the rest of my biking gear and I started to get the shakes,” McIntee said. “I wasn’t really sure what was going on at that point. I was shaking so bad I had to let myself down on the floor.”
Shortly thereafter, his wife arrived home from work.
“She came in the house and she was looking for me,” McIntee said. “At this point, I’m on the floor in the basement, but I can’t say anything. I don’t have any control of my limbs whatsoever. She just happened to come down into the basement and found me there on the floor.”
She called 911. An ambulance arrived at their Kalamazoo Avenue home in about three minutes.
“They were trying to get me to talk to them, but I can’t talk at this point,” McIntee said. “I can’t speak a word. One of the EMTs said, ‘Yeah, this is a stroke.’”
The EMTs called ahead to the Spectrum Health Stroke Center.
McIntee remembers all of it. Vividly. But with frustration.
“That’s the worst part—you’re conscious but you can’t speak,” he said. “You can’t grab a pencil to write or anything like that.”
“They hauled me out of the basement and put me in the ambulance. After I was in the ambulance for a while, I could speak, move around and recognize things. Then those symptoms would come back where I couldn’t speak. It was almost like the clot was moving, depending on how I changed positions on the gurney.”
Once at the stroke center, McIntee underwent a CT scan.
He met with Justin Singer, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group neurosurgeon.
“I’m conscious now so I can speak,” McIntee recalled. “They said, ‘Why don’t you walk a little bit.’ They had me walk down the hallway. I could feel tingling in my left leg and in my left arm. I was kind of walking awkward.”
Given the awkward gait, Dr. Singer recommended a thrombectomy, a procedure in which a wire is inserted to remove a blood clot from the brain.
“He showed me the clot, where blood was flowing and where it wasn’t flowing,” McIntee said. “When I came out of surgery, I didn’t have any slurred speech. I was normal at that point.”
Dr. Singer said McIntee had a blockage in the main artery that provides blood to the back of his brain, “a very fragile and delicate part of the brain” called the brain stem.
McIntee’s abnormal heart rhythm likely caused the life-threatening clot, the doctor said.
“The blockage was most likely from a blood clot that came from his heart and decreased the blood flow in this area,” Dr. Singer said. “I performed a procedure where I aspirated or ‘sucked out’ the blood clot with a special vacuum catheter that I inserted through an artery in his groin and navigated into his brain.”
McIntee remained in the intensive care unit for two days. Every 15 minutes, he had to go through a stroke regimen. Nurses would ask him questions, ask him to squeeze their fingers and ask him to smile.
On Sunday morning, a speech doctor and another neurologist evaluated him.
“They both said everything is fine and that they didn’t see any symptoms at that point,” McIntee said.
He returned home that Monday. By Wednesday, he laced up his athletic shoes and headed out for a run.
“I felt pretty good,” he said.
During his stroke treatment in the hospital, doctors discovered McIntee also suffered from atrial fibrillation, a condition that can cause the heart to beat erratically.
Dr. Singer said the abnormal heart rhythm likely caused the clot. It also led to fluid in McIntee’s lungs and caused him fatigue.
In August, McIntee saw Michael Brunner, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist.
McIntee, unfortunately, carried on a bit of a family tradition. His father suffered from heart issues and died from a stroke nine years ago. His uncle and grandmother died of heart attacks.
Dr. Brunner recommended cardiac ablation, which destroys tissue that causes abnormal heart rhythm.
“The ablation really made a big difference,” McIntee said. “All of a sudden, I’m not tired anymore. I get a good night’s sleep every night now. Apparently, the second heart beat was causing more problems than I knew. I had no idea.”
So these days, it’s life as normal, with no shortness of breath or coughing spells.
“When my lunch break rolls around I’m going to go out and bike for a while,” said McIntee, who also kayaks and skis.
He is also gearing up for retirement from his IT job at Amway. Perhaps in April.
“I’ve changed my attitude about retirement,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that a lot more than before. I want to do a little traveling and maybe do some things part time. I had planned to work until 2019.”
A stroke and near-death experience can change all that.
“This just reinforces the fact that we are all mortal,” McIntee said. “I want to have some time to do other things other than work.”
He plans to pursue hobbies, including woodworking, volunteering and visiting out-of-state family.
Most of all, McIntee is thankful for his outcome—and the thrombectomy technology.
“Before this device had been created, if you were a stroke victim it was pretty much hit or miss whether or not you’d be able to function again,” he said.
He knows others who weren’t so fortunate.
“As far as I’m concerned, Dr. Singer probably saved my life,” McIntee said. “I know a couple of people who had strokes before this and they didn’t have that benefit. One of them is in a home and not able to communicate. I know that I’m pretty lucky to still be doing what I’ve done before.”
Dr. Singer said McIntee is doing well.
“His prognosis is great and having good overall health and an active lifestyle ultimately was probably very significant for him having a great outcome, in addition to him seeking prompt medical attention,” Dr. Singer said. “Time is brain.”