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A Swim, a Stroke and a Show

After Suffering Back-to-Back Strokes, a Cedars-Sinai Patient Redefines Himself

As Michael Shutt, then 48, recovered at Cedars-Sinai from back-to-back strokes six years ago, his memory wandered to a beach in his home state of Massachusetts.

“I was 8 years old, learning to swim, and the waves kept pummeling on top of me,” recalls Shutt, a Los Angeles resident and three-time stroke survivor. “My father kept telling me: ‘You have two choices, sink or swim. Sinking is easier, and it’s my job to teach you to swim.’”

In that moment, Shutt says he decided to keep pushing, regardless of the waves that came his way. Michael Shutt performing the first reading of his solo show, “A Lesson in Swimming.” Photo courtesy of Michael Shutt..

“I refuse to let the strokes define me,” said Shutt, an award-winning writer, actor and producer who created an autobiographical solo show about his strokes to bring attention to the condition. “Instead, I chose to use the strokes as an opportunity to redefine myself and to inform people that strokes can happen to anyone, including young, healthy adults like me.”

Shutt’s mission is one his neurologist, Shlee S. Song, MD, co-director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center in the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai, can stand behind.

“Strokes can happen to anyone, at any age, although they are often perceived as an elderly condition,” said Song, an associate professor who also serves as director of the telestroke program. “Although your risk for having a stroke doubles with each decade of life after age 55, the incidence of strokes in young adults under 55 continues to climb.”

According to the journal Stroke, 10-15% of all ischemic strokes occur in patients aged 18 to 50. Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke in which a blood vessel in the brain is blocked by either a clot or by a buildup of fatty deposit and cholesterol.

Stroke symptoms are best recognized with the acronym FAST: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call 911. Other symptoms may include problems with sudden vision loss, balance or coordination issues, or sudden and severe headaches that may be the result of a specific type of hemorrhage.

Shlee Song, MD
When you have a stroke, every minute counts. By knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke and taking into account a patient’s risk factors, we work quickly to give lifesaving treatment to preserve a patient’s ability to function and their quality of life.
Shlee Song, MD

It took Shutt four days of new, unusual symptoms—including slurred speech, word confusion, and weakness in his leg—to go to the emergency room. Upon arrival, Cedars-Sinai emergency room care providers immediately identified his symptoms as signs of a stroke and treated him accordingly.

“When you have a stroke, every minute counts,” said Song. “By knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke and taking into account a patient’s risk factors, we work quickly to give lifesaving treatment to preserve a patient’s ability to function and their quality of life.”

Despite Shutt’s delay in seeking care, his initial treatment regimen was a success. He spent less than one week in the hospital and once home, exhibited limited side effects from the stroke. He thought his journey was over, but a short four months later, he says his “whole world changed.”

“I remember stepping off the treadmill while at the gym and suddenly, I saw sounds and heard colors,” said Shutt. “Everything shifted, almost as though I had kaleidoscope glasses on. I somehow made it to my car and immediately called 911.”

When he arrived at Cedars-Sinai, stroke specialists worked in rapid-response teams to treat Shutt with a clot-busting medicine that stopped his brain attack in its tracks. Determining the cause of Shutt’s second stroke required extensive testing and investigation by Song and her colleagues in the Comprehensive Stroke Program, with a high suspicion that he had vasculitis. His case was further complicated by a third stroke he had while in the hospital.

“I woke up the morning after my third stroke with no vision in my left or right peripheral fields and severe double vision,” said Shutt, who still has extensive vision impairments and is unable to drive. “In addition to my eyesight, I could hardly move the left side of my body and my cognitive function was greatly impaired. It was devastating.”

Shutt spent more than one month recovering in the hospital, undergoing extensive testing and rehabilitation therapy. On any given day, he would receive care and support from his comprehensive team of neurologists; neurovascular surgeons; stroke coordinators; rehabilitation nurses; physiatrists; physical, occupational and speech therapists; social workers; and a case manager. It’s this comprehensive approach that has helped keep Cedars-Sinai in the top tier of the region’s stroke-intervention facilities.

“We were the first medical center in Los Angeles County to earn Comprehensive Stroke Center certification from The Joint Commission and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association,” said Nancy Sicotte, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology, professor and the Women's Guild Distinguished Chair in Neurology. “These accolades are more than just distinctions. They represent tangible efforts that provide benefits for patients during diagnosis, treatment and recovery.”Cedars-Sinai patient Michael Shutt stands at the top of Runyon Canyon after his back-to-back strokes. Photo courtesy of Michael Shutt.

Once discharged, Shutt spent weeks in outpatient therapy. Now, more than six years after his first stroke, he still uses a cane to walk and has moments of mental confusion.

“With a stroke, you may not ever fully recover,” said Shutt. “Instead of focusing on getting back to normal, my journey has been focused on redefining my new normal and thriving within those circumstances.”

His new normal began as a simple task to improve his cognitive thinking: writing or typing memories. It was through his daily writing ritual that Shutt was inspired to create his solo show and podcast, “A Lesson in Swimming.”

“A lot of people think the most important line in my show is sink or swim,” says Shutt. “But the more important part of that sentence is actually ‘you have a choice.’ We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to life. I don’t want to say my strokes have been incredible, but the process of redefining myself through my strokes has been nothing short of incredible.”

Shutt’s determined mentality hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Most patients lose a piece of themselves in a stroke because their level of function is suddenly so different,” said Song. “Once patients can accept this change and go through the grieving process of what used to be, they often come out on the other side more resilient than before. Michael is the epitome of someone who’s gone through this process and is sharing how he got through it, with the help of family, friends, and a big care team who’s rooting for his ongoing recovery.”

Read more from the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Advances in Surgery for Stroke Prevention