March 18, 2011
Stroke was toughest opponent Hitman faced
By JIM BARBER - Napanee Guide
He's withstood poundings from The Undertaker, the 700-pound Yokozuna, the seven-foot-tall Diesel, been super-kicked in the face by Shawn Michaels, had multiple bones broken, concussions, a broken sternum and countless other injuries while spending the better part of a quarter century as one of the top stars in professional wrestling.
He's also dealt with family strife worthy of a reality show, and more personal tragedy than a normal person should endure.
But Bret "The Hitman" Hart's greatest battle came outside of the ring.
On June 24, 2002, while riding his bicycle through a park in downtown Calgary, his hometown, Hart fell, and suffered a stroke, that immobilized the entire left side of his body.
Through sheer force of will, incredible determination, and a work ethic born out of 'The Dungeon', his father Stu's infamous basement wrestling training facility/torture chamber, Hart has almost fully recovered, and even made a return to the wrestling ring in 2010.
Knowing how difficult it is for someone to recover from a stroke, knowing how much work, time and effort health care professionals put in to treating and rehabilitating stroke patients, and knowing that he has an international level of fame led Hart to become an official spokesperson for the March of Dimes Canada Stroke Recovery Program.
2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the March of Dimes Canada, which has as its mandate to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible, through the provision of programs and services.
"I get stopped pretty regularly by people who always have something nice to say about my recovery, especially older people. They seem to take a lot of pride in my will to fight back, and get back on my feet. I think, in general, people who know me here in Calgary and people who know of me across Canada and maybe even around the world respect the fact I was able to dust myself off, as bad as things got, and keep going forward," Hart told the Napanee Guide from his home in Calgary.
"And over the last few years, I have gone into hospitals and visited stroke patients and stroke wards, and I found they really do look up to you. They see hope, they themselves in you, that maybe they can dig deeper and work harder and stay as confident as they can.
"I got involved because I realized that if I can give anyone that had a stroke the confidence or some reason to dig deeper, that maybe there is a happier ending; that I wanted to do that."
Oddly enough, medical experts, including the internationally renowned head injury expert Dr. Karen Johnson from Montreal's McGill University, said Hart's wrestling past had nothing to do with his stroke - even though he had suffered a serious concussion about a year earlier at the hands of fellow WCW wrestler Bill Goldberg.
"The only thing that I could see as a strong contributing factor was I was under an incredible amount of stress at the time. My brother in law, the British Bulldog [Davey Boy Smith] had just died about 10 days before that. And I had just filed my divorce papers, and I just fired my business manager about an hour before I took that bike ride, and I remember being fairly distressed and agitated before I went on that ride."
He also had an argument with the store where he purchased his bike helmet, mere minutes before he fell. He wanted to purchase a small part, they wanted him to have to buy a new helmet.
"I just walked out and said, 'You know, I will ride today without my helmet.' I didn't think anything of it. And it was the biggest mistake I ever made."
Hart said he was travelling at a leisurely speed, coasting and actually standing up on one pedal, when his front tire went into a hole.
He pedalled hard to get out, but then his back tire hit the hole, and even though he managed to extricate himself, was wobbly and fell over a few feet from the hole.
"I really did a harmless, insignificant little fall. I just fell over sideways and I just rolled off. As soon as my head hit the ground, I suffered the stroke ... I just rolled as if you were to bend down and touch your toes and summersault over on you hardwood floor at home," Hart said.
"As soon as I hit the ground, I lost everything on my left side. And I ended up being taken to the hospital and they didn't tell me until quite a few hours later that I had suffered a stroke."
Hart said he managed to call his daughter and she and her mother came to the scene mere minutes later, saw that he was in distress, even though he initially thought he just had a pinched nerve.
"They saw that the pupil in my left eye was all black, and wasn't the same as the other eye. And I was drooling out of the side of my mouth, and slurring my words, and had trouble speaking," he said, adding that the Foothills Medical Centre doctors told him his life was hanging by a thread as they worked to treat him.
"They were kind of vague about my recovery, and even for the first few days, I kept thinking that I would just get up and walk out of there, and shake it off like I had done everything else, which was kind of the story of my wrestling career," Hart said.
"I remember the doctor coming in on about the third day saying, 'You're not going to be getting out of here for a long time. You will be really lucky if you ever walk again.' ... I think I really knew how serious it was, but I was looking for some kind of hope, and after that conversation, I realized this is going to be the toughest challenge I was ever going to face."
So with the same dedication to recovery that he applied to his wrestling training, and the same perseverance to work through major injuries, and other obstacles in his life.
"It was such a slow process. You never felt that your recovery is fast enough when you have a stroke. But I noticed it was like the layers of an onion. I got a little better every day ... and I learned how lucky I was to be making progress ... so I learned a lot from that. It was probably the most defining moment in my life," he said.
"My sole prayer was to be out of the wheelchair. It was painful being in a wheelchair for a long time, and I have a lot of empathy for anyone who has to be in one for long periods of time."
Within about three months Hart was able to walk, with great difficulty, to his physiotherapy sessions, and by about the six month mark had made remarkable progress.
But the effects of the stroke are still with him.
"It never affected my memory, and I got almost everything back. I have a little bit of weakness on my left side. I have difficulty lifting a box over my head. And when I try to lift my left foot, there's some tendons and muscles that never came back in my left calf. And my vision was real bad for a long time in my left eye, but I had surgery. which pretty much fixed that," Hart said, but added that it is still difficult to wink his left eye, or smile.
"I said to myself that I would never complain about anything, and I think I've lived my life that way. I rarely lose my temper, rarely let anything bother me like it did. I just learned that it's better to be calmer."
In 2010, with this new perspective on life, he decided he wanted to bury the hatchet with his former employer, Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE, with whom he had a major falling out after jumping to rival WCW in 1997.
Hart came back and did storyline with McMahon where he was able to get some peace and closure.
At the 2010 Wrestlemania pay-per-view, The Hitman got his 'revenge' on McMahon, by laying an epic beating on him.
Hart worked with the company until the end of last year, and said the door is open to more appearances, although he will never be able to be an active in-ring competitor because of his lingering physical issues.
He is also working on a couple of book projects, following on the heels of his wildly successful autobiography in 2007.
And he said he will continue to visit stroke patients and act as an ambassador for the March of Dimes Canada.
For more information on the Stroke Recovery Program, visit www.marchofdimes.ca. You can also learn about other programs and services, as well as how to donate.
The Kingston Branch of the March of Dimes call 613-549-4141, or email to email@example.com.
In future issues of The Guide, we will present stories of local folks who have seen their lives improved by the products and services offered by March of Dimes Canada.