Donald “Lucky” Polk learned two hard lessons about strokes, and now, he wants to spread stroke awareness to others.

Your Health | 3 years ago

A Survivor Shares Lessons About Strokes, Learned the Hard Way

Donald “Lucky” Polk learned two hard lessons about strokes, and now, he wants to spread stroke awareness to others.


It can be tempting to explain symptoms away. In 2018, when Donald ‘Lucky’ Polk had trouble walking without dragging his right leg, he attributed it to back problems. When he felt dizzy, he didn’t want to complain. But when severe headaches sent him to the emergency department at Atrium Health Pineville, he learned the truth: A series of small strokes had caused all of it.

It can also be tempting to stop taking medications when life returns to normal after a stroke.

“The better I felt, I was like, ‘What's the need? I feel good. So why should I continue to take the medicine?’” Lucky says. “[Even though] I knew that it was helping me and the reason why it was prescribed because it was to help me and to keep me out of this situation.”

Three years later, Lucky had another stroke. Ryan Gleason, MD, a neurologist with Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute, says that both situations – not knowing the signs and risk factors of a stroke  and quitting stroke medications early – are common, and they put people’s lives at great risk.

Lucky, who’s now in physical therapy as he recovers from his second stroke, wants to share two messages with others: Learn the signs and risks factors of a stroke, and if you have one, do all you can to prevent another.

Learning the Risks and Signs of Stroke

That a stroke happened to Lucky shows that it can happen to anyone. Lucky spent a lifetime devoted to health and physical fitness. In college, he became the first Black quarterback to win a scholarship to Louisiana State University. After playing college football, he played arena football. Lucky’s high standards for his sport required high standards for his health.

“I've always been a health nut,” Lucky says. “Back while I was playing ball, I was always working out all summers and staying in shape. And I worked out every day. I was on a strict diet. I ate certain foods, natural food. I didn't eat anything that would give me high blood pressure, anything like that.”

Back in 2018 when Lucky and his wife Shannon learned at Atrium Health Pineville that a series of strokes had caused his headaches, dizziness and leg trouble, they were shocked.

“We were baffled,” Shannon says. “It was surprising and just very concerning… I asked Dr. Gleason, ‘How could this happen? How didn’t we know?’ And Dr. Gleason was very informative, very personable. He spent a lot of time explaining strokes… and we were very thoughtful as to how we could adjust to this new normal.”

As he grew older, Lucky had developed a few risk factors for stroke, such as sleep apnea. Just last month, doctors discovered he had developed another risk factor for stroke: an atrial flutter, which is a fast heart rhythm.

Some symptoms of stroke are well known, including sudden numbness on one side of the body. But other symptoms—such as difficulty walking, difficulty seeing or even confusion—can also signal a hemorrhagic (caused when a blood vessel breaks and bleeds into the brain) or ischemic (caused by a blood clot) stroke.  Both of Lucky’s were ischemic strokes.

“The moral the story is that if you have neurologic symptoms develop, whether it’s slurred speech, facial droop, visual impairments, sensory changes on one side of your body, come to the hospital right away,” says Jason Madey, MD, the stroke medical director at Atrium Health Pineville. “Time is brain, and we can’t go back in time.”

Atrium Health has the region’s largest and most experienced stroke network, with multidisciplinary stroke management teams that provide specialty care, from the moment a patient arrives at the emergency department until they complete rehabilitation. A recent gift from George Shinn provides extra support to the more than 30 Carolinas Stroke Network sites. Funding from this generous donation will be used to innovate and enhance Atriums Health’s stroke services to provide cutting edge technology and expanded research opportunities.

Raising Awareness of Strokes and Decreasing Health Disparities

In addition to the other risk factors that Lucky had, he had another less known risk factor: being a Black male.

“Black males are 70% more likely to die from a stroke, which is a huge number,” Dr. Gleason says. “That may be because the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are all higher for this group. That leads to a more severe stroke, which affects how well people do afterwards. It's another cause for concern.”

Black Americans also tend to have strokes at earlier ages, too, which may make it even easier to miss the signs. Many people in their forties, for example, wouldn’t attribute one-sided weakness or difficulty walking to a stroke. Dr. Gleason wants to increase stroke awareness, particularly among the Black community, to help decrease racial health disparities.

Addressing disparities was one of the driving factors behind Shinn’s gift.

“Stroke is a leading cause of death in our country, especially in African American men,” Shinn says. “It is my prayer that with this center, we see those statistics change.”

Preventing Recurring Strokes

About 20% of people who’ve had a stroke will have another one within five years. To minimize that risk, doctors work with stroke patients to maintain positive health.

“We look at blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, age-related issues, smoking, alcohol use – any risk factor that someone may have for a stroke,” says Dr. Madey. “We try to reduce those risk factors as aggressively as possible to give patients the best protection and reduce their risk of recurrence.”

For many patients, part of that risk reduction involves medication, possibly a daily Aspirin or blood pressure medicine. As they feel better, many patients – like Lucky – stop taking the medicine because they feel it’s no longer needed. That’s when the risk of recurrent stroke increases.

“It’s an unfortunately common story: Someone has a small stroke and then they have to go on Aspirin or another medication, stop smoking, and make other changes,” says Dr. Gleason. “But once people start feeling better, that medication and those changes just become a reminder of having a condition, so they want to stop. It’s a common scenario when people think, ‘I had a stroke in the past, but I feel better now. I don’t need this anymore.’”

That’s when a recurrent stroke can happen. Lucky returned to the hospital with another stroke in February 2021.

Recovery After a Stroke

Although he tires more easily now, Lucky’s feeling better these days. He’s dedicated to the physical therapy at Atrium Health Pineville Rehabilitation Hospital that he needs to recover fully. Three time a week, physical therapists help him improve his walking through exercises. To keep his right leg from dragging, they encourage him to lift it higher than usual. His wife has become an honorary physical therapist who helps him practice these exercises at home.

“As I'm walking through the house, my wife will say, ‘March, march, march.’ So basically I'm walking around the house marching, and I'm picking my leg higher than normal just to get my brain trained,” Lucky says. “It's all about training yourself all over again to doing the thing that you know already.”

Lucky’s also found another supporter who helps him in his stroke recovery: his brother-in-law, who had a stroke the same week Lucky had his second stroke.

“We talk all the time and every time we get off the phone, we ask each other, ‘Did you take your medicine today?’” Lucky says. “That's one thing we vow: Every time we talk, we will say, ‘Did you take your medicine?’"

As the largest stroke network in the region, Atrium Health gives you access to life-saving treatments closer to home. This includes nationally recognized stroke care from the George Shinn Comprehensive Stroke Center at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. Learn about more Advanced Stroke Care at Atrium Health.

You can also download our infographic to Know the Signs of a Stroke.