On Jan. 29, Kris Letang woke up to get ready for the Pittsburgh Penguins' first mother-son road trip. What happened next was the start of a long, troubled journey with a still-uncertain outcome, with the 26-year-old defenceman left hoping he will be able to play in the NHL again.
Letang's wife, Catherine, awoke a short time after he did that day, to find her husband lying on the floor of their bedroom. Letang said in an interview published on the Penguins web site Thursday he was alert, but "I was just not able to function."
Catherine summoned her mother, who is a nurse and was visiting the Letangs, and with Kris's mother, Christiane, who was also in town from Montreal.
They elected not to call 9-1-1, Letang said, and his mother-in-law "took care of me." A little later, Letang and his mother left for the airport to catch the Penguins charter flight to California. He didn't think there would be any more problems.
"No, like the day before, I was totally fine, I was practising," Letang said. "I woke up that morning not expecting that would happen and it went like this. Actually, I went in my car with my mom and went to Los Angeles and thought it would clear up, but it never did."
When symptoms of dizziness and nausea continued, Letang was kept out of the game against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 30.
Two days later, he was diagnosed with a stroke and sent home.
Now, with the Penguins ready to resume their NHL schedule after the 17-day Olympic break, Letang will be on blood-thinners for another three weeks, is restricted to light exercise, and is counting on medical evidence that those who suffer strokes at such a young age can resume professional sports careers.
"I feel like I have some good days, bad days," Letang said in his first appearance before the media since the diagnosis. "I've said to many people I'm going day-by-day to get to 100 per cent.
"I think the most difficult thing was being around family. Everybody is really careful, like I can't even lift the luggage without them trying to help me out. Otherwise, it's just been mentally a little bit tough."
Letang said doctors told him people who have suffered a stroke in his age range form about 0.01 per cent of the population. There have been a few other professional athletes who had strokes during their playing days, such as major-league pitcher J.R. Richard and NHLer Brian Mullen. Their careers ended after the incidents, but two other athletes – NFL linebacker Tedy Bruschi and professional rodeo cowboy Stran Smith – came back to compete after strokes.
Bruschi and Smith both had the same congenital heart defect as was discovered in Letang (a small hole left when the upper two chambers did not grow closed after birth, as they do for most people). The defect was considered responsible for the strokes for Bruschi and Smith, but Letang said his doctors are not convinced it is the same for him. So, for now, the NHLer does not plan to have surgery to repair the defect.
Doctors have told Letang (who has been with the Pittsburgh franchise since being drafted in the third round in 2005) there is no reason he cannot resume his hockey career, but they cannot tell him when.
"I'm targeting it day-by-day," he said. "I'm trying to improve every day I come [to the rink]. I try to exercise the best I can. I see doctors pretty much every week, twice a week to get better. So we'll go from there."
In the meantime, Letang's family remains concerned.
"I think that's the main thing," he said. "For my part, I always want to get back and play games. Like, right now, I would like to step on the ice and play, but there's many things that hold me through that and certainly my family is really worried.
"That was a difficult part to manage, when you see your mom crying or your wife, any of my family members. It's always a tough thing to handle."
The next step in Letang's recovery will come in two to three weeks, when he undergoes a battery of tests and a decision will be made about staying on the blood-thinners. He said he has gone from disbelief to optimism about his condition.
"Honestly, when I found out, I kind of didn't really believe it," the Montreal-born NHLer said. "Well, first, I didn't understand the word [stroke], so I had to call my wife and ask her what it was because she went to school in English.
"So I kind of figured it out and from there. I mean, you just think if you're going to be all right, if I'm going to have the chance to play hockey again. But I was surrounded by great doctors, they took great care of me and all my questions were answered.
"So I feel like I'm making progress."
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