While some Minnesota track and field athletes grumbled their way through extended indoor workouts brought on by prolonged winter weather, Sawyer French mostly smiled while laboring to make the left side of his body functional again.
French, a junior at Maple Grove High School, suffered a significant stroke after an August cross-country race. Recovery included removing part of his skull to accommodate brain swelling and rehabilitating his stricken left side through physical and occupational therapy.
Nordic skiing was out. But French returned for track season.
The comeback, including nearly two months of hospitalization and inpatient rehabilitation, is almost complete. French, a middle-distance runner, hopes to compete in a race this spring, so long as his stamina rises and his times drop. Coaches worry a substandard time might trigger doubt or disappointment. Neither have slowed French yet. Family, friends and coaches see the same wisecracking teammate, competitive runner and strong student he was before the stroke.
Only now, nothing comes as easy. He’s a lefty, so writing and typing takes more time. His brain wasn’t damaged so his wit remains sharp. But words travel slower to his mouth. During workouts, he holds his left hand to his side to maintain control and build strength. After pushoffs, his left foot occasionally hits his right leg.
“Tough first injury, I guess,” he joked.
French received a letter last week from an interested Division I school — a reminder of where he was headed and fuel to get back. Crimson track and field coach Casey Roberts saw French’s commitment at captain’s practice workouts in March.
“Sawyer was there, running around trying to get his cardio back up,” Roberts said. “I was like, ‘Guys, take a look at what you’re seeing right now.’ The motivation never died away.
“In a way, he’s starting all over and you kind of feel for him having to go through that. But it’s great to see him powering through things. I’m excited to see his improvement.”
‘Your skull is gone’
The area around a cross-country finish line isn’t pretty. Gassed runners crumple to the ground, all sweating, some crying, struggling to shake off 3.1 miles of gut- and will-testing hustle.
So French didn’t worry as he lay on the ground after running a solid 17-minute and 50-second mark at the District 279 cross-country scrimmage at Elm Creek Park.
“I thought I was just tired or something,” he said. “Maybe dehydrated.”
But then he couldn’t get up. Or hold water down. Soon, his father, Brian French, and a few teammates were helping him to the family car. Sawyer’s left leg dragged behind.
Brian French, a doctor of internal medicine, took his son to Abbott Northwestern-WestHealth in nearby Plymouth. A computerized tomography (CT) scan showed signs of a stroke on the right side of the brain, so an ambulance transported French to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
Stroke? The word didn’t compute.
“I knew what it was but I didn’t think kids really had them so I was confused,” French said.
Strokes in children from birth to age 18 occurs infrequently, between 4.6 and 6.4 per 100,000 depending on the study. The American Stroke Association says the most common cause of stroke in adolescents ages 10 to 14 is damage to a blood vessel.
Doctors told French’s parents that a tear of the right-middle cerebral artery likely caused a blood clot and a lack of blood flow to the affected area of the brain. Running was not believed to a cause.
“It just happened at that time,” Brian French said. “Just a fluke, really.”
Strokes cause brain swelling that can be fatal in young people whose brains fill most of their skull. So doctors removed part of French’s skull as a preventive measure.
He took the news rather well.
“They’re like, ‘Your skull is gone,’ ” French said. “I was like, ‘Where did it go?’ ”
Not everything was so funny. The outgoing kid who led a team dance party at the pasta feed the night before the district meet said he “couldn’t feel my left side at all. Couldn’t move it. It was very frightening.”
‘No quit in that kid’
French’s determination showed from the start. Toward the end of his 17 days at Abbott Northwestern, French made progress by climbing stairs and extending the distance of hallway walks. A transfer to the Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare rehabilitation unit brought additional milestones. Left arm and hand movement gradually returned. First he made a fist. Then he touched his nose.
Cross-country coach Matt Gifford spent untold hours at both facilities. He helped French catch up on weeks of school work during the youngster’s rehabilitation unit stay.
“There is no quit in that kid,” Gifford said. “He was always the kid who never let things get to him. I was afraid this would change that but it hasn’t. It’s fascinating to see the way he attacks his new normal.”
Wheeled into the rehabilitation unit Sept. 11, French walked out 46 days later. He returned to school on Halloween, wearing a hat to hide a scar that resembled a question mark running down the right side of his head.
Stroke victims can experience recovery for up to two years, Dawn French, Sawyer’s mother, said she’s been told. But restoring fine motor skills in his left hand might be wishful thinking, she said.
“Mom and dad have had their moments together, that’s for sure,” Dawn said. “You try to keep a brave face for your kid. So far his recovery has been quite remarkable because he had a large, extensive stroke. We’ll keep positive and hope and pray for the best.”
Back on track
Track and field teammates are relieved to see their friend almost whole.
“He’s always been the same smart-aleck,” senior Andrew Hagemeister said. “It’s an inspiration that he’s made it through a stroke and he’s still in sports.”
“To see him go from not being able to walk to back to running already is really impressive,” sophomore C.J. Young said. “It does affect me once in awhile but he’s still able to run with us.”
Assistant track and field coach Alissa Kurke, who trains the Crimson middle-distance runners, noticed subtle differences in French. Though always a good teammate, he has traded good-natured cockiness for a more humble approach. He’s a little quieter because he’s listening to his body more.
“And I can’t get over his patience,” Kurke said. “I would be losing my mind if I were in that same situation.”
Kurke communicates with French more than other athletes as he regains his stamina. She developed strength training exercises modeled after workouts for stroke patients. Woe is Sawyer? Not a chance. But watching him run — his left arm in place rather than pumping — Kurke is reminded of his tough journey.
“We all have that little bit of heartbreak for him still,” she said. “He was a top athlete. And he still has top potential. So it’s hard. You want to see him hit all the goals he originally set for himself. But it’s also a tremendously uplifting thing to see him come as far as he has and to stay so positive. There are not many kids who can deal with that and keep a smile on their face.”