“I Was the Picture of Health—Until I Had Three Strokes”

After more than a decade of keeping silent, Kevin Sorbo opens up about his post-stroke battles and why he’ll never ignore his body’s red flags again.

Gina Roberts-Grey
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Back in the late ’90s, actor Kevin Sorbo was at the top his game. Not only was he starring as the strongest man in the world on the hit show Hercules, Kevin was in the best shape of his life. Spending hours a day in the gym lifting weights and doing cardio, the lifelong jock looked—and felt—invincible.

Which explains why Kevin, then 38, was more annoyed than concerned when he began having unusual shoulder pain. “I ignored a pain in my shoulder that started shooting down my left arm for almost two months. I blew it off because I was the type to ‘live through the pain.’

But one day while doing biceps curls at the gym, the actor felt such a burning pain in his arm that he had to stop his workout. Later that day, Kevin started having other symptoms: blurred vision, dizziness and buzzing in his head. By the next morning, his speech was slurred and he could barely walk.

His future wife, actress Sam Jenkins, rushed him to the hospital. There, tests revealed Kevin had a blocked artery in his arm due to an aneurysm (a balloon-like bulge caused by weakening of an artery). Follow-up MRI tests revealed more: “When the aneurysm started leaking, blood clots broke off and caused three strokes,” says Kevin. “I never thought this could happen to me. I’ve never smoked, I didn’t have high cholesterol or blood pressure, and I wasn’t overweight. My doctors suspect I’d had the aneurysm since birth.”

After lifesaving surgery, and a three-year recovery, the happily married father of three is ready to share how he reclaimed his strength.

The challenge: Losing everyday abilities. “I had to drop out of a movie because I couldn’t walk and had vision loss. And spending four months in rehab just learning how to walk again was tough physically and mentally.”
How to overcome it: 
Tap your inner warrior. “My ego kept me going,” laughs the type-A actor. “I simply was not going to let this thing beat me.”

The challenge: Straining to keep up. Worried that his health issues would affect his career, Kevin kept his condition a secret. “I was doing the best acting of my life by acting like I was healthy.”
How to overcome it:
Set limits. “I had to learn to say no and not worry about how others viewed me.” Even three years after his strokes, Kevin had to guard against exhaustion by cutting back his usual 14-hour days on the set to 12 hours—“door to door.”

The challenge: Expecting too much too soon. Kevin often felt angry at his slow progress: “Some days the most I could do was lie on the couch.”
How to overcome it: Celebrate the small victories. “If you can shift focus to the small improvements, you’ll find more to be encouraged by, even though the big picture may still be a disappointment.”

The challenge: Feeling hopeless. “I felt quite sorry for myself. The first two years, I got frustrated and depressed.”
How to overcome it: Find a cheerleader—and a purpose. “Sam, my wife, guided my rehab path. She always countered my pessimism with the positive point of view.” She even convinced him to write a memoir, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal—and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life. Adds Kevin: “Hercules saved lives in fiction, but the show saved my life because it gave me something to aim for, to go back to. I’m grateful I had that purpose.”      

Kevin’s #1 lesson? When your body speaks, take action!
“Even as my arm grew weaker, I didn’t do anything. I now know I should have because the pain was a warning sign, as was a lump in my shoulder, that I had an aneurysm. If the smoke detector went off in your house you wouldn’t ignore it, so if alarms go off in your body—like unusual pains or tingling sensations—seek help immediately.”

Signs of a stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body
  • Trouble walking, speaking or understanding others
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Blurred vision or seeing double
June 2013