As a journalist, you talk to a lot of people, but not always do you have the chance to listen to someone who touches you so that you will not forget the conversation. During my interview with Jason and Liz I was moved deeply. Some people radiate joy and love with every sentence they speak. Although this interview is about Jason´s recovery from a severe stroke, it is also about love. Love at first sight, love that grows during tough times, love for life and love for a child. You will read about not one, but two Real Life Heroes, and one future hero, who learns that the fun in falling is to find out how fast you can get up.
Lacuna: How did you meet?
Jason: We met through a mutual friend. He invited me over to a party. I had just gotten out of a longterm relationship. I wasn´t looking for anyone at all. And Liz had just gotten out of a relationship and she wasn´t looking for anyone at all. It´s so surreal because when I saw her and started talking to her I instantly knew I was going to marry her. Obviously, I didn´t tell her, I was going to marry her, because I had to ask her out first.
Lacuna: Liz, would you have been scared, if he told you right away that he was going to marry you?
Liz: Yes, I think it would have scared me away a little bit. It didn´t take long for me to understand who Jason was and to fall in love with his personality and his nature to keep going and trying. Even before Jason´s stroke, I could see these qualities in him.
Lacuna: Eventually you were expecting Leighton.
Liz: We went through quite a bit to get pregnant with Leighton. We had tried four years with no luck of conceiving. We learned that I was going to need a small surgery because they thought there was something preventing me from getting pregnant. Then I found out there were a six months waiting list to get the surgery. We were discouraged and didn´t know if this would ever happen and then all of a sudden I got pregnant. We were so happy.
Jason: It was a Sunday night. It was Super Bowl Sunday actually. I had just been watching the Super Bowl and Liz knows how much I am into sports, but as soon as the game was done she showed me a positive pregnancy test. I was so excited. She told me she would call the doctor the next day and get a blood test to be 100 percent sure. The next morning, it was like any other day. I felt a little bit tired but other than that I felt fine. I went about my day and then when I left work, about eight hours later, I still felt fine. I got home and I still felt fine. I was gonna head to the basement to work out and I had to go through the kitchen.
Liz: He came in and I said, `How was your day?` He was talking kind of funny. It almost sounded as if he had a beer on his way home, but I knew that wasn´t typical for him. I said, `Are you feeling okay because you are slurring a little bit.` I left him alone and went to another room. When I came back in, he was sitting at the kitchen table and he looked really nervous. He was shaking one leg.
Jason: Then I said, `Something is wrong with my left arm. I went to the washroom and I went to pull up my pants, but I couldn´t use my left hand properly. I had to use my right hand instead. I don´t know. I guess I pinched a nerve.` No part of me was thinking of stroke. Then Liz said, `Can you smile for a second?` It still didn´t cross my mind and I smiled and she shouted: `Are you doing that on purpose? `And it was when she shouted that I really began getting nervous.
Liz: I kind of knew what those symptoms are, but in my mind, I was thinking there must be some sort of other explanation. It can´t be a stroke. He is young. He is healthy. We got in the car and we drove to the hospital. Just to be safe.
Jason: When we got into the waiting room and I remember sitting in there like it was yesterday. I was looking around and there were three or four people sitting there. I was tapping my foot nervously and I was thinking, I am going before all of you people. So then Liz went through the nurse.
Liz: I said, `My husband is having stroke-like symptoms.` She called us in immediately. She took his blood pressure and asked him a few questions and within five minutes they had him getting a brain scan.
Jason: Next thing I remember was someone asking me if I had been on an ambulance ride before. And I said no and he said, `Okay, you´re going to now, Jason, you´re having a stroke. You got bleeding going on in your brain. We´re going to transport you to Toronto Western Hospital where they are better suited to help you.`
They found out I had a Arteriovenous Malformation (avm). This is a tangle of blood vessels. This would have been something I was born with. The first thing they were going to try was to release a glue-like substance in the brain to stop the bleeding.
Liz: We waited almost five hours and it seemed like time was standing still. Finally, the doctors came out and told us the procedure didn´t go as well as they would have hoped. That they may have caused additional bleeding and that they were not sure how much more impacted he would be. Basically, it was unsuccessful and they could have made it worse.
Lacuna: How did you feel?
Liz: It was like the whole world came crashing down. The next thing I know is that they were standing there with this sheet of paper I had to sign that said they had to do emergency brain surgery. Basically signing off on his life. I felt like I had to make a decision but there was no decision to make.
Jason: I remember being on a gurney and they tell me the procedure didn´t work. There were maybe six or seven doctors around me and I said, „Well, guess what guys? I will tell you something that no one other than me and my wife know. I found out yesterday, that I am going to be a dad. My wife is pregnant. You need to save my life because my child is going to need a father.“
Liz:The hardest part was when we were waiting for the doctors to come out after brain surgery. They took him in at 5 pm and the doctors finally came out at about 1:15 in the morning to tell us that the brain surgery had gone well. In the waiting room, I remember sitting there and thinking how Jason´s parents are so calm through this and I was too. People kept asking me, how could you function, how could you keep your calm. It´s really one of those things, there is no way to explain it, you just do it.
Lacuna: You can´t even explain it yourself. Maybe we are wired to make it through.
Liz: Exactly. Your body just turns into this survival mode.
He was on life support for five days. He was intubated for the first three or four days and he couldn´t talk and we couldn´t know what functions he would have. Then around day three two, he started making hand signal that he wanted to communicate something. We gave him a pen and paper. He started writing and he wrote: How did procedure go? And we told him it went well and then he wrote: „wife give me bath?“ Obviously, he really wanted a bath at that point.
Jason: Not realizing I had tubes and wires everywhere and I was going for no bath anytime soon.
Liz: That gave us a little bit of hope. He can communicate. His thoughts are clear. It was a good sign. The next day he and I were alone in the room and he pointed at my stomach and gave a thumbs up. So he was asking: is everything okay with the baby? I didn´t know at that point because I hadn´t even gone to that blood test. Two things were running through my mind and I was trying to push both of them out. One of them was, how likely is that gonna be that I was going to lose the baby having gone through all these stressful events? The other thing was, what if things don´t turn out. How am I gonna raise a baby on my own? Carrying the way of that, without anyone in the family knowing because it was so early in the pregnancy. It was really hard to keep that in. We didn´t wait any longer. As Jason´s recovery progressed and he got off life support and he became more stable, I finally left the hospital and went to get the blood test done and it was good. At that point, we told his parents.
Jason: The first night that I recall being there with nobody, I was able to really think about my situation, because I was distracted with people around. I thought, what´s my life as a father going to be like? Am I ever going to be able to hold my child? Can I even be a dad? I grew up believing in Jesus but I hadn´t really cared or practiced or thought about God for at least 15 years. That one night, I remember like it was yesterday. I said, Dear Lord, I am sorry if I abandoned you. I am sorry if I have not thanked you for all you have done for me. But Lord, I need your help now. I need you to be my teammate. I promise you I will not lay in this bed and be a hypocrite and just pray for your help. I promise I will work harder to recover than I have ever done for anything in my whole life. Lord, if you touch me with your healing hands I promise you, that I will brag about what you have done for me for the rest of my life. From there, things started to improve. There was still a major tough road ahead. I never thought, why me? I just knew we are going to make it through this.
Liz: Actually, that´s something that surprised me and Jason´s parents. At points of his life, he had suffered from anxiety, so when he woke we didn´t know how he would react. We didn´t know if he would be panicking, or if he was going be in hysteria.
Jason:Or just depressed about my state.
Liz: So we had no idea what to expect. When he woke up, it was like he was given this power to try and to keep going. Every day he would say, I will try and move my fingers Every day was something new for him.
Lacuna: Let´s fast forward a little. Tell us about your recovery.
Jason:I got some usage back for my shoulder. The good thing was my sense of humor was still there. The nurses would walk by and I would say „Hey“, and flinging my limp arm in the air. They found this hilarious.
I have a video of the first time I could move my fingers. I could bend them in slightly but not back out. I showed it to Liz and she was almost crying because it was a big moment. From there it was slow progression and practicing and being relentless. You can see it on my Instagram, I always say, stay relentless, because that literally defines my attitude with this recovery. You are not going to have a really good recovery from a stroke if you do things twice a week, not from a severe stroke anyway. Once I started being able to use my left hand, I made a pack with myself that I would not use my right hand for things unless I literally couldn´t do it with my left hand. Still, to this day, it became a habit that I never open the door with my right hand unless I can´t turn the knob for some reason with my left.
Liz: In fact, when Jason was first admitted to the rehab hospital they do a test to see how severe your deficits are. It´s a grading system from zero to seven.
Jason: I got a two on the lower extremities, my left leg. I got a one on my left arm and hand which is graded as extremely severe. Zero means you can’t do anything with that limb. I remember when I had that assessment, the girl asked me to close my eyes and that she was going to poke me on the left arm and hand and she wanted me to point to the spot she was poking me. I closed my eyes, about 30 seconds passed and I said, tell me when you gonna start. She said, Jason, I have been poking you in different areas. That was the first time that I actually broke down. I started crying.
That was in the first week. Then I spent another month there and I told Liz I was gonna walk out of there. She didn´t want me even attempting this, because it´s risky but I am stubborn and I did it anyway. Even if it didn’t look like very good walking.
Lacuna: Do you still have problems today?
Jason: Yes, mostly with regard to sensation on the left side. My left arm and hand are still numb but I am getting used to it. I am still working on my left shoulder a little. Fine motor skills with the left hand can be challenging. At times, I have trouble focusing, especially if there is a lot of background noise. My short term memory isn´t as sharp as it used to be. Overall though, I am still improving and feel extremely blessed to be alive. I registered to participate in Bayerest Sealfit. It is put on by Navy Seals. This is the first time it is coming to Canada. We are raising money for brain health, mainly dementia. It´s a great cause. It will be a major test of how far I have come both mentally and physically. Bayerest Sealfit takes place toward the end of September and I am training really hard for that to show stroke survivors you can do anything you want if you have the right attitude and are willing to put the time and effort in. You can see my training on Instagram.
Lacuna: Tell me about your daily life.
Jason: I am back to working full time and training five days a week, basically doing everything and more. Now I am also taking up the writing of a book. I do some motivational speaking. Mostly I speak at churches and businesses. Speaking at schools is something I am picking up now. I am excited about that. What they told me is that the students nowadays suffer greatly from self-esteem, they don´t believe in themselves, they don´t try things because of it. I am really optimistic, that I will be able to give some confidence to these kids. That would be an amazing feeling to me knowing that I impact some young kids life in that way. I do volunteer work for the Heart And Stroke Foundation. They have me do radio talks and they had Global News do a story about my recovery to bring stroke awareness during the FAST campaign. Which is Face Arms Speech and Time. Which are four key factors for identifying if someone is having a stroke.
Lacuna: What do you enjoy most doing with Leighton?
Jason: Now you really made me smile. Leighton is my best friend. We do everything together. I don´t even know how to express it. He is my pride and joy. He is my everything. I mean, I love Liz to death but Leighton is my air.
Liz: He has a very active lifestyle with Leighton. They do sports together. They go to the park. All the things that any dad would do.
Jason: We got a swimming pool. I am physically able to pick him up over my head and splash him into the water. I am so grateful for it. There was a time when it definitely looked like I wasn’t able to do all these things. I build him an outdoor ring every year. He was three this winter. He is able to skate now. We have fun. I love teaching him and finding different ways of getting him to do things. One thing this winter he kept falling down whenever he tried to skate. So he didn´t want to get up and he wanted to go into the house. What I kept doing was, every time he fell I pretended I fell too. Then I was like: `Let´s see who can get up faster!` Then I got up slowly and I kept going: `You always get up faster than daddy, you are the best at getting up!` Then he started to enjoy falling.
Lacuna: Who is a Real Life Hero to you?
Jason: I said in the past that Liz is my Real Life Hero. People always say, `How do you do it, Jason?“ I would rather be in my shoes, at least at the time, then in Liz shoes. I would never want to go through what she had to go through. The way she handled it is unbelievable. Living with a brain injury and recovering from a brain injury means I will never be the same person as I was before. And that´s good in many ways. But there are also things like, I lose my cool a little bit faster than I may have in the past. Liz is so patient. She is always there to lean on when I need her.
Lacuna: Jason just called you a Real Life Hero, how do you feel about it?
Liz: I don’t know if I would refer to myself as a hero but I feel proud of the way I handled it. I think it´s very important for others who are going through the same thing to realize it´s not going to be easy, and there are moments when you are going to feel frustrated and angry. Understanding that the person you knew before this happened might not always be exactly the same person they are after such an incident, but you still love them for who they are because that´s is still the person you have always loved.
Lacuna: Talking to you was such a gift. Do you have some final thoughts?
Jason:I am confident that this all happened for a reason, that I am going to impact so many people´s lives in a positive way by providing them with hope and inspiration. I am going to touch so many lives that I wouldn´t have touched before. As much as I think I would have been a good father before, I think I am a great father now. My son is going to learn so much and he is growing up to be one day a great father because of the lessons I learned through this. I wouldn´t take the stroke back if I could.