East TN stroke survivor shares path to recovery, how to spot the signs

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Living in East Tennessee means you may be at a higher risk of suffering a stroke.

A map from the Centers for Disease Control illustrates how Tennessee counties, especially in West Tennessee and rural counties all over, show some of the highest rates across the country.

Knox County and some of its surrounding neighbors aren’t as bad off, but Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, and Greene counties show higher rates.

Researchers say it’s been this way since at least 1940.

“If you look at the stroke registry that we have in Tennessee, which is done by the Tennessee Department of Health and ETSU, we have about 14,000 stokes per year over the last couple of years and about 3,500 people a year die of a stroke,” said Dr. Robert Wilson with Covenant Medical Group.

“We fall somewhere between 6th and 12th nationally in regards to stroke mortality,” Wilson said.

Some people are at higher risk, but a stroke can happen to anyone. 

“All my numbers, my cholesterol numbers were low. My blood pressure was fine, John Rapkowicz is a stroke survivor and said. “I didn’t have any problems at all and it just came out of nowhere.”

Rapkowicz had just retired in 2021 and was staying pretty active by going golfing, hunting, and exercising regularly.

“I retired in April of 2021 and my friend and I, Bobby Reynolds, we played between April and October, we keep track of our scores to know what we’re doing bad in, we played about 80 rounds of golf between April and the day I had my stroke.”

That night changed his life forever.

“I got up to go to the bathroom and when I went back to bed I felt dizzy like the room was spinning,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’ll be alright, I’ll lay down.’ So, I laid down and it still felt like spinning. Then I felt like my whole right side was cramped up. So I called for Pat because it wasn’t going away.”

“I called 911 immediately and fortunately they came pretty quickly even though it seemed like forever,” Pat Rapkowicz, John’s wife, said. “And I was pretty certain it was a stoke.”

John was in the hospital at Ft. Sanders for three weeks.

“It affected my vision, and swallowing and talking,” he said. 

Rapkowicz is one of the 14,000 people annually who suffer from a stoke.

“If you have any type of deficit whether It’s speech weakness numbness, trouble walking, trouble talking, confusion, vision changes, get seen immediately,” Dr. Wilson said. “Call 911.”

Speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy have helped Rapkowicz in his recovery process. The following year, he walked the Covenant Health 5K and he didn’t stop there.

“My ultimate goals were I wanted to hunt again, and golf, and drive,” he said.

He’s accomplished those goals too.

“He’s always been a very determined person but he has worked really really really hard,” his wife said.

He said he’s sharing his story because he knows a stroke can happen to anyone.

Know the warning signs and act fast to get help. Some ways you can lower you risks are controlling your blood pressure include, eating a healthy diet, monitoring blood sugar, being active, and not smoking.

If you or a family member is experiencing face drooping, am weakness, and speech difficulty, call 911. Those are all symptoms of a stroke.

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