The 17-year-old boy wanted to yell for help, wanted to tell his mom that his life was replaying through his mind as he drifted in and out of consciousness. But no sound would come out.
Strapped to a gurney inside an ambulance, he felt mentally aware but physically paralyzed, unable to answer an onslaught of questions, unable to ask, “Am I going to be OK?”
“If I’m being completely honest with you,” he says, “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Four months later, Olathe North High School senior Brandon Clark was running on a track behind his high school when the memory of that night returned. He had circled the track once and then once more.
On his third lap, he stopped and cried. Bawled so fiercely that he says he was hyperventilating.
Seconds passed. And then minutes. As his head coach approached, Clark collected his breath long enough for one question.
“Will I ever be what I once was?”
Clark had ignored the symptoms that something might be wrong. The headaches were so intense that he would become nauseous and leave school. White spots dotted his vision. He hid that detail from his parents, who had detected some mood changes in his personality.
But he was young, in the best shape of his life and only a few months removed from winning the Kansas Class 6A state championship in the 800-meter run.
“I’m coming off winning state, then just had a great summer, now heading into my senior year,” he says. “I felt invincible.”
On Halloween night last fall, a couple of weeks after he landed a track scholarship from Washburn University, Clark had planned to meet some friends. He walked upstairs to shower, unstrapped his running watch and accidentally dropped it on the floor. When he leaned down to retrieve it, the symptoms returned, this time worse than before.
He was lightheaded. A loud buzzing noise filled his ears. The sound of vuvuzelas at a soccer match? This was like that but “amplified by like 10,” he says. After half a minute, his legs gave out, and he collapsed on the floor.
He had assumed he was home alone that evening — his two parents driving each of his younger siblings to separate Halloween parties. But his youngest sister, Kennedy, had forgotten some makeup for her costume. She returned to the bathroom, finding Clark on the floor, pointing at the left side of his body.
At 17 years old, he was having a stroke.
“If Kennedy wouldn’t have found me there, I would’ve been there for hours,” he says. “I’d definitely be dead.”
He was taken to a local hospital and later transported to another, where it took doctors three hours to detect that Clark had suffered a stroke. After an initial CT scan revealed nothing, one with contrast dye showed a blood clot in his brain stem was cutting off oxygen and blood supply to his brain.
He was later diagnosed with basilar artery occlusion, which has a mortality rate of greater than 85 percent. Relatively little research has been conducted on the effects of a basilar artery stroke on children, but it is considered rare.
It inflicted Clark just one week after he celebrated Olathe North’s cross country team state championship.
“At one point, I remember that he had given me a hug after his team won state — he was just in a very, very good mood,” his mom, Ashley, says. “So I remember thinking the night of that stroke that if something happens, we’ll always have that day. And I’ll always have that hug.”
During an ambulance ride that transported him from one hospital to another, Clark felt a collection of emotions — sadness, frustration, fear. In his mind, he recounted the good deeds he had performed over the past 17 years, certain they would allow him to enjoy an afterlife.
“The hardest part for me about that was just accepting the fact that, OK, this might be it,” he says.
Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove the blood clot. Clark would not wake for nearly two days. As more than 90 family and friends visited his room in an intensive care unit, Clark was hooked up to a ventilator.
When he awoke, he yanked the tube out of his throat.
“Literally the first thing he said was, ‘I’ve got to run again,’ ” Ashley says. “Anyone who came into the room, he would tell them he needed to run again. From the get-go, that’s been his goal and his passion.”
Over the last several months, Ashley has found comfort in online communities of mothers who are in similar circumstances — their kids, too, are stroke survivors. But few of their sons and daughters are walking normally. Even fewer are running.
Twenty-four hours after waking up, Clark tested the feeling in his left side. He was asked to raise his left leg. It didn’t budge. Standing in the room, Clark’s high school track and cross country coach passed out as the test was performed.
“That was definitely a weird one,” Olathe North coach Levi Huseman says. “The best way I can rationalize it is I just felt so sad.
“Brandon is a very likable young man and obviously he’s a very talented athlete. I just felt so sad seeing him in that condition.”
The medical professionals braced Clark’s family for the possibility he would never walk again without assistance. But a day later, he surprised them. He took one step with the aid of a gait belt. Another day later, he completed a lap around the intensive care unit. “My legs felt like jello,” he says.
The bustle of everyday life had caused him to vomit. But it was a good day. It was progress.
Clark visited a hematologist, a blood specialist, as he made steady strides in his rehab, graduating to light jogging and then eventually occasional running. He was on his way to a return to the track, he figured. But given his blood-clot disorder, Clark would have to be on a blood thinner for the rest of his life, and the risk of internal bleeding was too significant to participate in sports, the doctor told him.
No more running.
“He took that as a challenge,” Ashley says. “He’s always been competitive. He wasn’t going to just lay there and take it.”
On a warm evening last week, Clark put on his red-and-blue track uniform and enlisted in the 800-meter race for just the third time in his senior season. Huseman has tried to progress slowly with his state-champion runner, building his confidence before sending him into action.
A month earlier, he had greenlighted Clark’s return to the 800, several weeks after a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, cleared his participation in track. Huseman figured Clark was ready. It didn’t go well. Clark was crushed.
But in Friday’s Sunflower League meet, Clark did something he had not done all senior year.
The picture captured at the race shows his eyes closed, his hands in the air as he crosses the finish line.
“I think for him, that was validation that he still has it,” Huseman says.
It’s been nearly seven months since the stroke, and Clark has changed in mostly subtle ways. He doesn’t sweat the minute details of life. He’s a firm believer in doing what makes you happy and wasting little time on all else. A family friend recently told his mom that “he’s radiating light, smiling ear to ear every time I see him.”
But if there’s a circumstance in which Clark remains the same, it’s on the track. His times are on pace with last year, when he won that state championship. His expectations are, too. On Friday, Clark will attempt to qualify for the Kansas Class 6A state meet. He’s already told his coach he thinks he will win the qualifier.
Family, friends and coaches have tried — and mostly failed — to soften that rhetoric. Clark can be particularly hard on himself when he doesn’t run precisely the same as he once did.
That’s why he broke down that afternoon on the Olathe North track, he explains. In his first practice since returning from the stroke, after his teammates spent the offseason running miles and he spent it learning to simply walk again, he felt he should have been able to pick up where he left off. When it became clear he couldn’t, he lost control of his emotion.
Strangers have approached Clark at track meets and complimented his improbable comeback. They revere his perseverance. Washburn has elected to honor his scholarship. Huseman says it’s one of the greatest success stories of his coaching career.
To Clark? Not yet.
“In the running world, going to meets, people know. They used to say, ‘There’s that kid who won state. Now it’s, ‘There’s that kid who had the stroke,’ ” he says. “It’s a cool story to talk about, and I get that.
“But I’m out here because this is what’s normal to me. I’m not out here to prove a point just so people talk can about how it’s a cool story. I’m out here to win."