Through the rolling grassland and sage of the Okanagan Valley, Ed Fast’s shoes pad down on a sandy trail, as his legs take him up a hill he has climbed many times before. An early May wind blows at the grass as the morning sun rises over Cactus Mountain and Osoyoos Lake.
Walk. Rest. Walk. Rest. Walk.
• • • • •
It is Dec. 10, 2016. Outside Fast’s home, the ground is covered by snow. Inside, it’s warm and the Abbotsford Member of Parliament is looking into a computer monitor when the left side of his arm goes numb. In front of him, a camera on his computer is beaming Fast’s image to a national television audience. In the 61-year-old’s brain, unseen by the CBC audience, a blood vessel has burst.
Fast knows immediately that something is very wrong. He ends the interview and heads to his kitchen’s medicine cabinet to grab an aspirin – which he believes can limit damage if taken at the first sign of a heart attack or stroke.
Nothing. With feeling draining from the left side of his body, Fast pauses at a couch and calls 911, then his wife. Then, he heads to the bathroom. An aspirin waits for him there. But he never makes it.
• • • • •
A little more than a week later, Fast is in the hallway of Eagle Ridge Hospital in Port Moody and a nurse is rushing toward him.
“You can’t! You can’t go that far!” The nurse says.
Fast, holding a walker, disagrees.
“Yes, I can,” he says. “I’m capable of doing this!”
He is, it turns out. And he has the blessing from his therapist downstairs to walk all the way to the end of the hallway and back.
• • • • •
One day in hospital, Fast is in his bed when, without notice, an old acquaintance appears.
Months later, Fast will remember calls from fellow MPs, community leaders and friends who have called to wish him luck. But this one will stand out.
Unbidden and with no notice, the man had driven to Port Moody. He sits down and says he had suffered a stroke and recovered.
Fast will later say more people need to hear from people who have “walked this walk” early on in the process.
“You end up in the hospital. There’s nobody really to tell you what it’s going to be like going forward.”
• • • • •
And life has a way of throwing curveballs. Just weeks after his first post-stroke hike up Cactus Mountain, Fast is back in the hospital and unconscious as a surgeon cuts into his chest and pulls his ribs apart.
Since a teenager, his heart had been murmuring, the result of a defective valve in need of replacement sometime.
That sometime is May 18, 2017. Hands maneuver a new heart valve, along with a synthetic aorta, into position. The procedure takes six hours but everything goes as planned.
• • • • •
The stroke had no bearing on the heart surgery, but recovering from the pair of procedures is challenging.
In mid-June, Fast sits casually in his office in Garden Park Tower across from a reporter. The previous day he walked two kilometres in Fishtrap Creek Park, and he is looking forward to being able to hike again. Having returned to Parliament before his latest surgery, Fast says he looks forward to returning in September. His Conservative Party has a new leader, Andrew Scheer, and Fast remains its Environment Critic. He also says he will run for a fifth term as MP in the 2019 election.
Some things will never be the same, though.
Six months ago, Fast lay in an ambulance and contemplated what he believed would be a “life-changing experience.” His body, he felt, had sustained real, lasting damage.
Today, Fast knows he will be living with the effects of his stroke for years to come. While the bursting of a vessel didn’t create cognitive or significant long-term physical damage, it did impact the thalamus, the part of the brain believed to transmit sensory information from the body.
The result, for Fast, is thalamic pain syndrome – a condition in which the person feels pain despite experiencing no attendant trauma. He can manage the pain through neurological medication, but, he says, “you can’t get rid of it.” Fast doesn’t think it will ever get better.
But Fast knows it could also have been much worse.
The patients in the Eagle Ridge stroke ward all supported and encouraged each other, he says, but many faced stroke symptoms even more serious than Fast’s, including memory loss, colour blindness and problems using limbs and opening their hands.
And then there’s that aspirin.
Fast was aware of conventional wisdom suggesting aspirin can help reduce the likelihood of long-term damage from strokes. But he only knew half of the story.
While aspirin – taken under the advice of a professional – can help after a mini-stroke, it should not be taken independently. That, the American Heart Association says in bold letters on its website, is because some strokes involve ruptured blood vessels. Thinning the blood in such instances can be dangerous and increase the severity of the stroke.
Which is exactly what Fast avoided.
“I’m a very grateful person I didn’t find the aspirin,” he says now. When paramedics arrived, he told them to grab an aspirin. They didn’t. Instead, they checked his blood pressure and found it “sky high.”
“It was the right response,” he says. “Had I taken an aspirin, it would have thinned out my blood. The damage could have been much worse.”