Some might say that Brandon Clark beat some long odds when he kicked from fourth place in the last 200 meters of last year's Class 6A track and field championships to win the title in the 800m run. It was the first state medal of any color for Clark in three years of running high school cross country and track.
But Clark, a senior at Olathe North, beat much longer odds five months later after suffering a stroke that nearly killed him on Halloween night.
You read that right: A seemingly healthy, 17-year-old state champion runner suffered a stroke when a blood clot formed at the stem of his brain, cutting oxygen to the brain for much of four hours and creating a mad scramble that included two anxiety-filled ambulance rides and a just-in-time surgery to save his life.
This is his story.
May 27, 2017
Brandon Clark entered the 2017 Kansas track and field state championships as the No. 1 seed in the Class 6A 800m run, by virtue of having run the fastest time among the four regional winners.
Still, he was a virtual unknown on the state scene. His best place at state before the 2017 meet was a ninth-place finish in the 800 one year earlier.
What he did have was a wicked finishing kick and a deep-seated belief in the training program that his coach, Levi Huseman, had laid out for him.
"We are trained to peak at state," Clark said. "Our training is mile-based for five to six meets before tapering at the end of the season and doing our speed work."
Seemingly trapped on the rail in fourth place and about 20 meters behind the leader after the first lap, Clark maneuvered his way to the outer part of the first lane and made his move on the backstretch. With 150 meters to go, he caught Mitchell Brock of Shawnee Mission South and won pulling away.
TV cameras caught his emotions as he finished. With arms raised, he let out a scream of joy.
October 28, 2017
Fast forward to Brandon's senior season of cross country, and he was expected to be one of the top runners on an Olathe North team that entered the season with hopes of a state title.
Brandon's season didn't turn out as he would have liked, struggling to find his strength in workouts and races. He eventually was the first alternate on the team that did, indeed, win the Class 6A state championship.
"He had kind of a rough season," said his mother, Ashley, who said her son wasn't always in a good mood during the season because he felt like he was in a running "slump." Ashley said the family learned weeks later that Brandon could have been suffering a series of transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs, which is kind of like a "mini-stroke" that doesn't last very long.
Still, Brandon had put aside his personal disappointment for the good of the team, and took a great deal of pleasure from knowing he had helped others on the team to win the state championship.
Two state championships in back-to-back seasons--Brandon Clark was living a running dream. But about 72 hours later, the dream nearly became a nightmare.
October 31, 2017
Halloween was pretty much a routine day for Brandon, who headed off to school, practiced with his teammates as they prepared for the Nike Heartland Regionals -- "It was probably one of my better workouts of the season," he said -- and then headed home for a family dinner.
The family had a lot of plans for the night. Brandon's father, Phil, was taking one daughter to a middle school party, and Ashley was taking the couple's youngest daughter to a party with her friends. Brandon was home alone, but preparing to join his friends later.
"Everything was normal, but when I went upstairs to wash up and shower, I remember I had dropped my running watch on the floor and then bent down to pick it up, and as soon as I stood up, I got this really, really loud buzzing noise in my head," he said. "It was an insanely loud noise. I kind of thought I was just a little light-headed and it would go away."
It didn't. After a short while, the same legs that had carried Brandon Clark to state championship glory gave way and he collapsed to the floor.
Brandon and Ashley both have expressed their faith in God, and this was one of those times when divine intervention may have played on their side.
Brandon's sister, Kennedy, had forgotten her makeup, and so while her mother waited for her in the car, she re-entered the house at about the same time Brandon began having problems. She had reached the upstairs bathroom just as Brandon was falling to the ground.
"She just started screaming from upstairs and I said, 'What's wrong?'" Ashley said. "She called me up there, and Brandon's head was on the floor--he had collapsed. It was scary, he had just run, and I didn't know if he was dehydrated.
"He was very hard to talk to. He was drifting in and out...his eyes would be open for a while, other times they weren't. He was pointing to his left side."
Ashley Clark called 9-1-1, though she still couldn't fully understand the gravity of the situation. She did not comprehend that her son was suffering a stroke right in front of her. She admits that she hung up on the 9-1-1 operator, instead thinking again that maybe it was just a case of dehydration.
"In the previous year, my best friend suffered a stroke," Ashley said. "And Brandon was now exhibiting a lot of the same symptoms that she had. So I called back."
EMTs arrived 10 minutes later and tested Brandon's vital signs. They were normal. "Normal," however, was not good.
"It was kind of crazy because I didn't feel like they were in a big hurry to find out what was wrong with him," Ashley said. "They took his vitals, said his vitals are fine. We explained (that) he's a runner, his vitals run low, so if the vitals are normal, then they are actually high. Things like that."
It took some convincing by Ashley to get the EMTs to transport Brandon to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where again the medical professionals were not easily convinced that Brandon was suffering a stroke.
Seventeen-year-old, state championship runners are not supposed to suffer a stroke, are they? Ashley calls the next few hours "extreme frustration" as medical professionals floated many theories for Brandon's illness. One even asked whether Brandon had possibly overdosed on drugs.
What Brandon remembers is that he couldn't feel his left side. His eyes were burning. And any time he tried to speak or even cry, nothing would come out of his mouth.
Finally, a second CAT scan revealed the blood clot in the brain stem and the situation was becoming more grave. By this time, it was entirely possible that the clot had caused oxygen to be cut off from Brandon's brain for three to four hours.
There were other complications, as well. Brandon was just two months short of his 18th birthday, and thus the pediatric doctors were not immediately willing to take him as a patient, and yet the doctors who treated adult patients wouldn't take him either.
Eventually, Mercy Children's Hospital stepped in and arranged for a transport. However, recognizing the severity of the situation, they instead arranged for their transport to take Brandon to the KU Medical Center.
That ambulance ride was "very scary," Brandon remembers.
"I didn't really know if I was going to make it out," he said. "One thing I remember, and it's cliché to say, people say you see your whole life flash before you. All of these memories kept popping in and out very quickly. It was almost like I felt every emotion and experience, every memory all at once. That's what kind of freaked me out--it's like why is all of this stuff coming to my mind right now?"
He continued: "I just had to lay there and accept the fact that I didn't feel like I was going to make it, if I'm being honest. It was pretty scary; the last thought I kind of had was I don't know if I'm going to be able to see my mom and dad again, sisters, friends...running wasn't really on my mind at that point."
The next thing he remembers was waking up 24 hours later in a hospital room, alive and well.
Nov. 1, 2017
On Halloween night and into the wee hours of Nov. 1, doctors at the KU Medical Center performed an emergency surgery to remove the blood clot, and the procedure required doctors to insert a breathing tube that essentially kept Brandon breathing in an unconscious state for the next 24 hours.
What they determined was that Brandon had suffered a basilar artery stroke, described in some medical journals as "among the most feared and devastating strokes" because they block the brain's critical basilar artery system.
About 85 percent of strokes are ischemic, meaning they are caused by blockages in blood vessels. And about four percent of all ischemic strokes are caused by blockages in the basilar artery system, which supplies oxygen-rich blood to some of the most critical parts of the brain.
The stroke that Brandon Clark suffered has a mortality rate of 85 percent.
"The day that I woke up in the hospital, I remember one of the first thoughts I had was I have got to get back to running, because I still had two and one-half months before track and there was still plenty of time to get back," Brandon said.
On a CaringBridge site set up for Brandon, Ashley details one particular story in which Brandon was laying in his hospital bed mumbling the words "left, right" then "left, right" over and over.
"I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was reminding himself how to run," Ashley recalls. "Then he kinda grinned with his half-droopy face and said, 'I like a fast left, fast right...'"
Doctors weren't so sure that was realistic. Brandon -- who still couldn't feel the left side of his body -- was lucky to be alive, but there was no guarantee that he would ever walk normally again, much less run. And it was much, much less likely that he could run fast again.
Over the next couple days, Brandon's hospital room saw a steady flow of coaches, friends, family, and other well-wishers. He had beaten the long odds, though he still had a long road of recovery ahead of him.
Nov. 2-7, 2017
Once doctors removed the respirator and the various tubes in his body, Brandon went to work to do what some thought couldn't be done. November 2 may eventually be seen as the beginning of his comeback.
"That day was kind of like night and day," he said. "I woke up and I was able to hold a pretty steady conversation with people coming in and out, and with the doctors. They were doing therapy with my reflexes, and I was doing pretty well with it.
"They got me up walking a little bit. I had to walk with assistance, holding on to things. I didn't have my balance yet." (See video of Brandon's first steps below)
He was regaining some feeling in his left side, though Ashley says Brandon was still "very rigid and stiff." Over the next three days, Brandon gained increasing momentum. On Nov. 3, he was moved from the intensive care unit into a regular room. On Nov. 4, he was moved to in-patient rehab, but he didn't last long there -- he was too good: "They said that the strides I had made in the first couple days were pretty good, so I got released."
On Nov. 5, he walked on a treadmill with a harness for three minutes, and on Nov. 6 he was released from in-patient rehab. By Nov. 7, he began a seven-week rehabilitation program that he had to do from home.
Brandon was dedicated to his in-home rehab, but running was not part of the protocol. Just before Christmas, he had a return visit to the KU Medical Center where doctors delivered a mighty blow.
"They told me I wouldn't be able to ever run again given the severity of the clotting disorder I have," he said. "They said it's too dangerous to run on, so they completely nixed running and said, 'Don't be surprised if you're never able to run again.'"
"That day was pretty upsetting, but I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to accept that.'"
Sometimes stubbornness can get you into trouble, but sometimes, well, it's just the right thing to do. And in this case, it led the Clark family to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a facility that could perform the high-level tests needed to determine whether Brandon could again run.
"We went up there at the end of December and did some more testing," Brandon said. "They were able to look at things a bit more in-depth, because it's a bigger hospital with more professionals. They were able to OK running." That's all he needed to hear.
Jan 5, 2018
One day before beginning the second semester of his senior year, Brandon Clark laced up the running shoes for the first time in more than two months.
"It was only 10 minutes," he said. "I got about a mile and one-half in that day."
Huseman, who coaches both the cross country runners and the distance runners in track, says where Brandon is right now "is nothing short of a miracle."
"In workload, we went from no running to 10 minutes per day, 20 minutes per day, 3 miles, and we are actually right now just under 50 miles a week," Huseman said. "If something feels off then we back off. We've walked cool-downs or cut runs short if something comes up.
"I think we are a little more cautious with Brandon than with the other kids but going forward our goal is to get him and everyone else in the best shape for racing that we can. I don't want to set any limitations ahead of time and short him in any way. Whatever he can handle, that's what we're going to give him."
In his first two races of the season, Brandon said he didn't feel the same speed at the end of races that had been his trademark. But on April 5 at the Olathe Invitational, the kick came back.
Sitting in nearly last place, he opened it up and caught most of the pack before settling for fourth place in a time of 2:04, a time that Brandon says "is not fantastic by any means, but that's just how our training goes at this time of year.
"I finally had a nice little kick at the end, the last 150, and I haven't had that at all this season. It's pretty nice to have that back, and it's very reassuring."
Ashley admits that watching Brandon turn it on at the end "scared me, because he was running so fast and serious and even more of a kick than he used to have."
But, in general, Brandon's parents say they're not concerned that running creates an unusual risk for their son.
"Running is what helped him survive through all this, because if he didn't have running I don't think he would be making the progress he did," Ashley said. "The moment they took him off the respirator and all the stuff, I think the first words out of his mouth were 'I've got to run again.'"
May 26, 2018
The fate of this day, of course, is yet to be determined.
Brandon wants the chance to defend his state title in the 800m run. That may come on May 26, the day of the state finals in Wichita's Cessna Stadium.
"My goals haven't really changed since the day after state last year; I knew I wanted to repeat. That has never changed," Brandon said. "I have accepted the fact that it's probably going to be a lot harder this year to get there. But that hasn't changed. I still feel like once we start tapering and doing speed work and I have fresh legs at the end of the season, there's no one I need to worry about in 6A. I'm going to have it.
"The thing that has changed is that my motivation toward running has definitely shifted. It kind of felt like a job last year. I mean, I still did it for fun, I loved it, but there were some days where I didn't want to go to practice - I don't want to do this, my legs are tired, I wish I could go home. It's not like that now. I look at running a completely different way. It's made me even more hungry for success just to show people that it's something that kills 85 percent of the people but it can't kill me. Nothing is going to stop me or slow me down."
Huseman says: "Brandon is definitely a remarkable young man. He has a desire to run, to compete, to win; and he's a fighter. What started out fighting for his life, quite literally, turned into fighting to walk, then to running, and now to competing again.
"I think a lot of his recovery is sheer willpower on Brandon's part. Making the decision that he's going to get back to where he was and then some."
Late May, 2018
The blood clot that formed in Brandon's body made its way through a small hole in his heart between the left and right atria called a PFO, or patent foramen ovale. It sounds like a big problem, but more than 25 percent of the population has one and for most, it causes no adverse effects.
To lessen the risk of future blood clots moving through the PFO and reaching the brain stem, doctors at the Mayo Clinic have scheduled surgery for Brandon in late May to close the opening. Doctors will insert a cardiac catheter into a vein in his leg to reach the heart and insert a device that will close the flap.
Ashley says that scar tissue will form over the device and become part of the heart. Brandon's recovery will be at least four weeks.
Children's Stroke Foundation of the Midwest
On May 19, the Children's Stroke Foundation of the Midwest is holding a 5K run/walk at Heritage Park in Olathe, Kan. to help raise awareness that kids can -- and do -- have strokes, too.
The organization works to provide information and resources about pediatric stroke issues. It was founded by two women whose children suffered a stroke while they were still in their mother's womb.
Their mission now is to help others who also find resources difficult to navigate, even in metropolitan areas like Kansas City where one would expect to find medical professionals with experience in this area.
They write: "Our quest to help other stroke parents and children has been a constant labor of love. When we went to find resources in Kansas City, we discovered that there were so many wonderful options, but many were a bit difficult to find."
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Read more about Brandon Clark's journey to recovery at his CaringBridge site, located at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/teambrandon2