Driven and Determined: Paul Dewey Suffers Major Stroke, Builds Back His Strength

June 27, 2021 by
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On November 30, 2016, Paul Dewey stroked out at his gym, CrossFit Johns Creek in Georgia. 

  • “It was the type of workout… I want to say a 10-minute workout when… your score was going to be double-unders,” says Ronda Smith, Dewey’s coach.
  • “Paul had about a minute-and-a-half, two minutes [left],” she says, “And he was really good with his double-unders. [Then] he just stopped, and he… I mean, it happened so fast. I remember him sitting down and I was like ‘Are you ok?’” she continued, recalling that at this point another member, a police officer, grabbed Dewey.
  • When Paul looked at me, the side of his face just slumped. I knew it was a stroke.”

Dewey suffered an acute ischemic stroke. Within 30 minutes, Dewey, 52 years old, an athlete and a father, was on his way to the local hospital. 

  • At the hospital, Dewey was given clot buster medicine, but it didn’t work. His front left carotid artery was blocked, prompting a helicopter ride to a different hospital with a trauma center. 
  • Once airlifted, he was operated on and diagnosed with a major stroke. Dewey had aphasia and apraxia, and his whole upper right side and 30% of his leg were affected. 
  • “There were just a bunch of things that could have happened,” Smith says. “He was almost finished with that workout. He could have been in traffic and had that stroke, he could have gone home… so he could have been in the bathroom and had the stroke in the shower, or he could have had the stroke in the middle of the night. For something so bad to happen, it happened at the best time.”

One week later, Dewey was discharged and sent to The Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation clinic where he now volunteers, in Atlanta. He spent five weeks in intensive care, with occupational, speech, and physical therapy six hours a day, before getting moved to an out-of-patient facility. 

  • On June 1, 2017, Dewey, who says he always wanted to get back to CrossFit, returned to his box. 
Credit: Ronda Smith

Building back up: Dewey’s first workout back was a half-Murph, to which he says, “I was winded, big time. I was depressed. I was, I mean, I thought to myself — how long is the recovery?”

  • “Initially, I was not ready to lift anything,” Dewey adds. “PVC pipe only.”
  •  “Paul could do everything before,” Smith says, explaining that now, Dewey had to change his thinking to, “Ok, I can’t do burpees anymore, I can’t do box jumps anymore, I can’t do push-ups anymore, I can’t hardly lift a bar anymore, so it’s much slower for me now.”

Dewey and Smith worked together to find the best scales for him. She gives examples: 

  • “Instead of box jumps, he’s doing step-ups. His step-ups would be on a plate, [and] you know, he’s wobbly, so you had to put the plate next to the rig or something so he could hang on.”
  • “But he worked the programming and worked his strength up and got his balance back and got his strength back in that hand.” (Dewey lost some function in his right hand and uses a gripping aid to help him.)

Dewey says he “struggled regularly,” and was “pissed off” for five to six months until slowly, he started making progress. “Neuroplasticity is the real deal,” he adds. 

  • “His attitude coming in every day was ‘I’m just going to come in and figure out how to work around the things that are obstacles for me that one day, weren’t,’” says Alex Browning, a former coach at CrossFit Johns Creek. “And he did it with a smile, he did it while high-fiving everyone else, he is the kind of guy … he’s going through this very difficult journey next to everyone else and he’s walking up to them at the end, giving them a high five and saying great job.”
  • “He’s driven and determined. He’s not going to lay there and feel sorry for himself or whine or complain. When normal people like us start whining and complaining, it makes him mad,” says Smith.

And, the drive paid off: Dewey tested his strength semi-annually, and each year, the numbers began to rise.

  • In year one, Dewey was back squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing with a PVC pipe. By year two, he was up to 41lbs, 95lbs, and 25lbs, respectively. 
  • Currently, his back squat is 250lbs, he’s deadlifting 330lbs, and his bench press has hit 150lbs. 
  • “Compared to other stroke patients, I am an anomaly,” now 56-year-old Dewey says. “I get up off my couch and exercise daily. Some stroke survivors don’t know how lucky they are to be alive. I am lucky to be alive also. But some stroke survivors don’t have the motivation I do.”
  • “The doctors tell me the stroke happens… and after a year, [you] plateau. More than a year plus, I’m not plateauing.”

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