California man didn't know he was living with a 'ticking time bomb'

By Stefani Kopenec, American Heart Association News

Richard Horton had untreated high blood pressure, leading to two strokes that left him fighting to overcome paralysis. (Photo courtesy of Richard Horton)
Richard Horton had untreated high blood pressure, leading to two strokes that left him fighting to overcome paralysis. (Photo courtesy of Richard Horton)

Richard Horton woke up one morning needing to use the bathroom. He got out of bed, took a couple steps and stumbled into the wall.

The 55-year-old insurance broker told his then-wife, Bridgette Horton, he thought he might be having a stroke. It was the only thing that made sense. Still, he brushed it off and went back to bed.

A bit later, Bridgette was headed to a family funeral. He assured her he'd be fine. But before she left, she heard him talking to a client on the phone, and the things he said didn't make sense.

"Why are you talking like that?" she said.

"I don't know," Richard said.

She again asked if he was OK, and he said he felt fine.

After the funeral, the couple went to the emergency room for good measure. They expected to be in and out in a short time. Instead, tests revealed that he'd indeed had a stroke, the kind caused by a rupture of a weakened blood vessel in his brain.

This, he soon learned, was the result of "a ticking time bomb in my body" that he'd been living with for over a decade.

Richard had uncontrolled high blood pressure. Over time, it wreaked havoc on his blood vessels. He was so vulnerable that upon being transferred to a larger hospital better equipped to handle his condition, it happened again.

"I was bathing him in the shower," Bridgette said. "He fell, and I caught him."

It left Richard paralyzed.

"The only way I can explain it is like the left side of my body died," he said. "It was just a very, very weird and scary feeling not to be able to walk, not to be able to use my left hand."

Richard spent more than two months in the hospital undergoing speech therapy to strengthen his voice and physical therapy to strengthen different parts of his leg and improve his gait. He began to stand and walk with the help of a leg brace. When he finally saw movement in his hand, he began to cry, knowing that he could get better with proper exercise, diet and his faith.

"It was a long road, and I'm still at a point where I'm constantly working on my recovery," he said.

Richard now uses his voice to raise awareness about the importance of knowing your blood pressure numbers and keeping them in a healthy range.

At the time of his strokes in August 2011, his blood pressure was 220/124. A normal blood pressure is at or below 120/80.

Richard had accepted his high numbers because his former doctor told him that "because you're an African American, your blood pressure is normally high."

"That's crazy! It's asinine," Richard said recently.

The doctor didn't even prescribe medicine that could've helped get the numbers under control.

About 58% of Black adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure, or hypertension, according to American Heart Association statistics. It's also called "the silent killer" because it usually has no symptoms. Black people also have disproportionately high rates of more severe high blood pressure, and it develops earlier in life.

Not only did Richard have two strokes, but high blood pressure damaged his kidneys. He is currently taking heart and blood pressure medication, watching his intake of salt and red meat, and trying to strengthen his body.

"I don't like the disability that I still deal with, but at the same time, it's allowed the person in me to just rise to another level in my life so I can make positive change with other folks," he said.

Richard Horton says his strokes allowed him to find his calling in helping others. (Photo courtesy of Richard Horton)
Richard Horton says his strokes allowed him to find his calling in helping others. (Photo courtesy of Richard Horton)

Richard started a nonprofit to raise awareness about strokes. He has organized 5K runs and other events to share his experience, which he said is "the calling of my life." Through his role with the Pasadena NAACP, the civil rights organization is hosting "Jazz In The Spirit," a health awareness benefit concert taking place in May.

Richard, now 66, encourages others to visit the doctor regularly, get a second opinion if there are any questions, and not to delay getting treatment if there is a possibility of stroke.

Richard said he is a "rare breed" who does not fear being seen in public with the lingering effects of his strokes. He challenges himself to go where he wants the best he can.

"I just carry along with me the faith and belief that eventually even the disabilities I deal with now are going to be a thing of the past."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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