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Back in the Game

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When Mary Laver got the call from her son Rick on July 27, she was incredulous. “Mom, Dad has had a stroke,” said Rick, 29. “Whose dad? Not your dad,” she responded. “He’s too healthy.” The reaction was understandable. Her husband is Rod Laver—known as Rocket, for his blazing speed on the court when he tore through the tennis world in the ’60s and ’70s. The only player to win two Grand Slams in his career, sweeping all of a year’s four major tournaments, at 59 he still weighed only 170 lbs., ate a low-fat diet and played golf and tennis. Though his brother Bob had died of an aneurysm at age 48, there was no other family history of vascular disease. Yet despite his wife’s disbelief, Laver had indeed suffered a moderate hemorrhagic stroke. (Hemorrhagic strokes, caused by a burst blood vessel, account for about 15 percent of all strokes; ischemic strokes, which usually occur when a blood vessel is blocked by a blood clot, account for the rest.) About 700,000 Americans suffer strokes every year, and of these, 150,000 die.

When stricken, Laver was taping an interview for ESPN’s Sports Century at a hotel in Westwood, Calif. Rushed to the Stroke Center at the UCLA Medical Center nearby, he was treated by doctors of the “brain attack” team. After 13 days in intensive care, during which his condition was stabilized, Laver went on to spend 2½ weeks in therapy and was released from the hospital Aug. 27. Though still suffering some paralysis on his right side and still slightly speech impaired, Laver is recuperating at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. That’s where he shared the story of his stroke—and his remarkably rapid recovery—with correspondent Lyndon Stambler.

About three quarters of the way through the interview, my leg felt numb, and then I felt my hand and my fingers were cold and numb. It was like if you’d slept on your arm. There was no pain; it didn’t dawn on me that I was having a stroke. I got up and I fell, but one of the camera crew caught me. Alex Gibney, the interviewer, called for an ambulance. I couldn’t remember our phone number to let Mary know.

I remember the paramedics wheeling me through the hotel, but I really don’t remember very much after that point. A stroke doesn’t let you think, as I’m finding out.

The first time I recall Mary coming in, she had a big hat on. It must have been at six days. I certainly remember my son Rick being a great help. He’d been away and out of the house for years, so it was nice to have him by my side. I think the family’s love probably played 90 percent in my recovery. Someone was always around at the hospital, in the room. They brought up the cards—birthday cards and get-well cards—and I saw there were a lot of them. My stepdaughter Anne put them in volumes.

They tell me that I was talking, gibbering away in some type of language they couldn’t understand. I’d feel like I’d made a wonderful statement, and they’d acknowledge that I’d said something wonderful, but it didn’t make any sense at all. The doctor asked Mary if I had ever studied Latin.

It was only when I had gotten out of the ICU that they started therapy. The therapy goes from getting out of bed and brushing your teeth to putting on a pair of shorts. Speech therapy started fairly soon; occupational therapy came later. The first day or two, they just wanted me to remember things. What was my age? What was my name? Who’s the President of the United States? I knew these things, but the right words wouldn’t come out.

We were starting from scratch, almost. There was a clock on the wall, and I couldn’t read it. I remember when the therapist came in and I pointed to her watch, but I said glasses instead. Then I realized that if I’d slow down before I spoke, the right words would come out.

After that they had people come by to make me write. I couldn’t really write; I was copying. I’d try to write “cat” and it would come out “c-c-a—a-t.” We’d go back through the words, and they’d say, “What do you think you wrote here?” I knew I had to start all over again. There’s no use being frustrated about it.

Seventeen days after the stroke, I started cruising around on my wheelchair. That was the nice part. The occupational people would come down and get me to try to stand behind the walker—not push it but just stand and get my balance. I banged my right arm a bit because it’s numb and I’d forget it was hanging outside the wheelchair.

At one stage I wanted to know if I could get back and start playing tennis. So they wheeled me down, and I was standing up outside, just away from the wheelchair. One physical therapist would sit in the wheelchair and grab my legs and the back of my belt, and I’d get out there and hit the ball. It felt great.

I’d been fed intravenously while I was in the intensive care unit, and I remember asking, “When do I get something to eat?” They said no, you can’t have food because your whole right side is numb. My first meal was one of those good hospital meals—pasta probably. They stayed there with me the first meal, watching to see I didn’t choke. They kept asking, “Are you chewing enough?”

When I came out of the hospital, my legs looked like little beanpoles, atrophied down. I was 138 when I left the hospital, and I’m normally about 170. I knew I had a lot of recovery to do. Most times I exercise in the kitchen where the floor is tiled. The therapist always says don’t try to do too much—you’ll get tired very quickly just talking to people, watching television. But I did watch the U.S. Open. I was thrilled when Patrick Rafter won again. And Pete Sampras called me. It’s nice to hear from people like that. Mentally it does help.

I think the biggest problem in recovery is balance, but because I was an athlete, I have pretty good balance, maybe better than the average person. After a few days at home I was using the walker. Then I went from the walker to using my golf putter as a cane. One day my therapist said, “Why don’t you walk over there without it.” That was a great feeling, just being able to walk here and back on my own without a walking stick. I remember putting it on my calendar: “I walked today.”

I’m still numb on the right side, but the good part is that I can move. Being left-handed, I still have full use of the left side. They say that I may get full feeling in my right arm and leg, but no doctors will give any guarantees. Some people will get a full recovery; other people get to the point where they have some feeling but not all of it. You just don’t know. Fortunately I can walk, although I have to watch where my right leg is all the time.

I think having a stroke makes you appreciate the things you have, your health certainly. You don’t know how fragile you are. Maybe tennis was good because it gave me the training technique to start again—whether it be telling time, writing or remembering my telephone number. My goals? I’m not going to accept that I can’t play tennis again. I’m going to work until I can.