WORTHINGTON - The day before Erik “Eddy” Artiga, 18, faced the most severe health crisis of his life, he’d seemed perfectly fine.
In fact, on that Saturday, Jan. 12, Artiga, a four-year wrestler with the Worthington High School grapplers, secured a second-place finish in the 115-pound weight class at the Big South Conference meet.
But while hanging out at a hot tub party with fellow wrestlers later that night, Artiga’s life took a dramatic turn.
“I had gotten out of the hot tub, dressed and was on Nick [Putnam’s] bed talking to him - but when I got up to go home, everything was different,” said Artiga.
Artiga’s vision disappeared - “I couldn’t see anything; everything was pitch-black,” he recalled - and the left side of his face, including his mouth, was drooping. Additionally, he couldn’t pick up his left foot, which along with his left hand felt numb. The normally powerful, energetic athlete said he felt “really weak.”
“It was like all my joints and muscles weren’t working together,” Artiga said.
Artiga’s close encounter with Sanford Health System’s skilled medical professionals began shortly thereafter, when a friend called an ambulance and insisted Artiga accept the ride.
“I thought my dad would be mad and that I shouldn’t get in, but Ivan [Martinez] said, ‘You should go,’” related Artiga.
While Artiga doesn’t remember much about the ride to the hospital, he is very clear that, upon arrival, a sense of peace descended over him.
“My hearing was fine, so I heard a doctor and nurse immediately identify themselves and start asking me simple questions,” said Artiga.
“Even as they pushed me in to the ER, they were checking my blood and oxygen levels - and at that moment I thought, ‘OK, I’m in some good hands here,’ and I felt like I would be safe at the end of it.”
Fortunately for Artiga, he was right. Sanford Worthington Medical Center is an acute stroke-ready facility, according to Dee Telkamp, manager of the Sanford Worthington Emergency Department.
“We work in conjunction with the Department of Health to put processes, protocols and procedures in place to quickly identify stroke victims and to immediately provide appropriate treatment if someone is having a stroke,” said Telkamp.
“And we have doctors and nurses on site 24/7 who are trained in caring for patients with acute stroke symptoms; our EMSes also have training.”
A CT scan revealed that Artiga had, indeed, suffered a stroke.
“They put me on some blood buster medication in Worthington to dissolve any blood clots,” said Artiga, who was transferred by ambulance to Sioux Falls, S.D., after a couple of hours in the local emergency room.
Gradually, Artiga’s most dire symptoms began to fade.
“My vision was slowly returning by about noon [roughly nine hours following the stroke] and I was able to move the left side of my body but I kept falling asleep without much warning - almost like I had narcolepsy - and that was my brain trying to heal,” he said.
Artiga spent Sunday night in the hospital for observation and after two days of resting, he was back in his classes on Wednesday. Nevertheless, he was still feeling the effects of the stroke.
“I had headaches daily until late April, and things like high-pitched sounds or people talking loudly would trigger them,” he said.
“It was terrible being at school with that, and I had short-term memory problems that made me forget what I had just learned in a class so I had to write down assignments and notes a lot more than I usually would.”
Even one month post-stroke, Artiga would sometimes doze off in class as his tired brain demanded the rest it needed to heal.
“I was tired for a whole month and a half,” said Artiga, “but the teachers were really understanding.”
In the process of Artiga’s treatment, doctors discovered he has a hole in his heart that likely contributed to his unexpected and untimely stroke.
“I’m going to get the hole filled at the Sanford Heart Hospital in mid-June,” said Artiga, noting that technology allows for the fix to be a same-day, hour-long, minimally invasive procedure.
“That’s good news for me,” he grinned, “because open heart surgery doesn’t sound great.”
Although strokecenter.org points out that a stroke occurs every 40 seconds in the United States, three-fourths of stroke patients are over 65.
“While it is unusual for someone of Erik’s age to have a stroke,” said Telkamp, “studies are showing that stroke is being increasingly identified in younger Americans.
“It’s important for people to know that stroke doesn’t just affect those of a certain age or ethnicity - it’s something everyone should be aware of, because Erik’s case shows you never know who it might strike.”
And though none of these applied to Artiga, Telkamp reminds that risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, regular smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat).
Telkamp says the Minnesota Department of Health recently adopted a new stroke symptom awareness acronym: BE FAST.
“That stands for balance, eyesight (acute visual changes in one or both eyes), face, arms, speech (difficulty speaking or enunciating) and time to call 911,” listed Telkamp.
“Erik had most of those symptoms to some degree.”
Artiga’s friends were able to recognize he was experiencing something abnormal and needed to be checked out as soon as possible, and such quick action is exactly what Telkamp recommends.
“Do not wait at all,” said Telkamp. “The phrase used by the state health department is ‘Time lost is brain lost,’ so don’t write off those symptoms, whether they’re happening to you or someone around you.
“It might be easy to think, ‘Oh, this will get better if I give it an hour or two,’ but that can make a real difference in the level of permanent disability a person has when it comes to stroke.
“And we have the means to help if you just come in,” she added. “Rapid and appropriate treatment from the medical staffs at Sanford in both Worthington and Sioux Falls aided Erik.”
For Artiga, speedy and suitable treatment resulted in a positive health outcome that allowed him to complete his senior year. He crossed the stage at Worthington High School on Friday evening to accept his diploma, bedecked in a black gown, red stole and mortar board.
In the fall, Artiga intends to attend Bemidji State University with plans to study nursing.
“I always wanted to be a nurse, but the stroke pushed me toward that even more,” said Artiga.
“People who didn’t know me helped save my life, and I want to help other people too.”
Other than being on a daily baby aspirin regimen and still having occasional headaches, Artiga’s life is largely back to normal.
“Going through all that as an 18-year-old, wondering if I’d ever be able to see again or move my left side - oh, man, I can’t explain the feeling,” said Artiga.
“It feels like a second chance pretty much, and I want to make an effort to do something to help other people in this world.”