When Mark Acevedo had a stroke, he didn’t call 9-1-1. He didn’t have to. A fire captain in Ventura, Calif., he was already with the emergency response unit, fighting a wild-lands fire, when his left leg gave out and his speech started to slur. The team flew him out to a nearby hospital where doctors diagnosed a stroke resulting from a dissected carotid artery. It was June 2001. He was 41.
After five days in the hospital, Mark was transferred to a rehab hospital where he underwent the rounds of traditional therapy. “The county’s neurologist told me that 20 years of service was enough and to just go fishing,” Mark says. After five weeks of rehab, he was released to a physical-therapy, assisted-living house that specializes in brain injury. He was in a wheelchair, though he could walk a little with a brace. His left side was still weak.
Mark loved being a fireman, and he wanted to return to his job, but nobody at the county encouraged that. The county offered him a big settlement to retire. They even made him “Firefighter of the Year.” But Mark would have none of it.
At about three months post-stroke, he found Tom Wisenbaker, a special needs fitness trainer working in nearby Newbury Park. Tom works out of a fitness center, where he focuses almost exclusively on stroke survivors and MS patients. He is not a physical therapist, but after briefly evaluating Mark, Tom told him, “I think I can get you back.”
“When Mark started with me,” Tom says, “his grip strength was 26 lbs — after two rounds of therapy. And they said he was done. After two months his grip strength was 40 lbs. OTs (occupational therapists) were checking this, not me.” An average grip strength for men is 65.
Tom quickly resolved Mark’s drop foot and put him to work on the treadmill. Tom also had him lifting weights practically every day. Mark improved enough to return to light duty seven months post-stroke, but the fire chief refused to let him fight fires. The chief did agree to reinstate the 22-year veteran if he could pass the strength and agility test he’d taken when he had first joined the force. The chief made the promise in May, 11 months post-stroke; the test would be given in July.Mark redoubled his training, doing complicated footwork on the treadmill and lifting weights every day. As the test day neared, Mark and Tom went to the training ground where it would be given almost every day. Mark would run the stairs, pull fire hose from one floor to the next and drag the 160-pound dummy the test required. For eight weeks he trained as if his future depended on it. On the day of the test, Tom said, “You’re doing this for millions of stroke survivors.”
All the hard work paid off: 13 months after his stroke, with a crowd of his fellow county employees watching, Mark Acevedo passed his test and got his job back. His time was three minutes faster than it had to be; his grip strength was 125 lbs.