Carson Cathey is a 16-year-old junior at Oswego High School, a healthy 6-foot-4, 280-pound football defensive tackle.
He swam for six years, and has played football since fourth grade. Cathey got in five of Oswego’s six games during this spring season.
Incredibly, less than two months after he had a stroke.
Cathey these days feels good, with no lingering symptoms, and all the feeling back in his left arm and leg. But he has learned a great deal since he felt weak and numb on his left side and fell to the floor getting out of bed on a Saturday morning in early February.
“I’ve learned so much about everything, health wise and stuff,” Cathey said.
Cathey never had a health concern before, and had no known risk factors for a stroke. And while being older than 65 puts a person at greater risk of having a stroke, it is possible to have one at any age. Approximately six in 100,000 children will suffer a stroke at one point between birth and adulthood, with 60% of those cases affecting boys, according to the American Heart Association.
Cathey’s case came without warning. He was fine the night before, outside playing basketball and up playing video games until 1 a.m. He woke up that Saturday morning feeling weak and numb on his left side. When he tried to get out of bed, he fell to the floor and could not move.
“I had to yell for help; there was no feeling in my arm,” Cathey said. “When it first happened I wasn’t thinking stroke. I thought I put my shoulder up too high while I was sleeping, and the feeling would come back. It didn’t come back. It wasn’t just my arm, it was the entire left side of the body. That’s when we realized something was up.”
Carson’s dad came to his side to call 911. Paramedics quickly arrived to take Cathey to Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora, where they ran a brain CT scan and eventually transported him to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Cathey’s stroke, doctors eventually learned, was caused by a blood clot traveling through a patent foramen ovale (PFO) – also known as a hole in the heart – and then to his brain. Until Cathey had surgery he was given the clot-busting drug tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) to minimize the symptoms and told to not do anything aggressively active or lift that would cause the pressure to build up.
“They didn’t know 100% what happened until the second day I was there,” Cathey said. “They said there was a hole in my heart.”
Oswego football coach Brian Cooney first heard the news about Cathey through an assistant coach who was getting updates from Cathey’s dad.
“In my mind the focus was you hope the kid is OK and will recover. Football was totally out of my mind,” Cooney said.
Cathey’s first reaction was shock that a person his age could have a stroke. His second thought was worry about resuming a normal life, and getting back to the game he loves.
“I wondered if I could ever play football again,” he said. “You don’t really think about having a stroke until you’re older. You don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”
Cathey initially was told he’d never play football again, as doctors determined what triggered the stroke. Once doctors identified the problem, though, he was told he could play. A month after his first stay in the hospital, surgery was done to close up the hole in his heart.
Four weeks after the hole in his heart was repaired, Cathey returned to the field. He carried a U.S. flag to lead Oswego onto the field at his first game.
“That first day of practice, you want to trust the doctors of course, but the situation he was in, you’re on pins and needles,” Cooney said. “The first play he went in, you’re thinking ‘God I hope we’re right here.’ But he did his thing. Him being able to heal that quickly, it’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Cathey allowed for a week of rest after surgery to let the incision heal, and after that did some light jogging, slowly working his way back to full contact. He was back lifting weights and playing football by March 26, and played in all but one game.
“The first few games back I felt a little more tired; I wasn’t in the shape that I was because I had to take two months off,” Cathey said. “After I got back a week or two, heading into the third or fourth game, the last game I felt really good, 100% back to normal.”
Cathey’s prognosis is good, with no lingering effects other than a small incision in his groin from the surgery. His doctor wants Cathey to go back in June or July to make sure everything is going well with his heart, and he’ll have a visit with the neurologist after that.
Cathey looks forward to a return to the field this fall. He does so with perspective that goes well beyond football.
“Anything can happen to anybody, no matter how old you are,” he said.