Ravenel teacher still inspiring students after strokes
By Stephanie Jadrnicek
SENECA — When Leon Scott rolled into the Ravenel Elementary School cafeteria in a wheelchair, his fourth-graders flocked to him.
Some had visited him in the hospital with their parents, but most hadn’t seen him in weeks.
“My students were at lunch, and I didn’t tell anybody I was coming. I wanted to surprise my kids,” the science and social studies teacher said. “It was a very emotional moment. Some of the toughest kids were in tears — and I was in tears, too. It was an amazing experience.”
That was five years ago. Scott was 31 and had suffered the first of his two cerebellar strokes. Several weeks before, he’d sustained an injury from Brazilian jiu-jitsu — a grappling and ground-fighting martial art Scott had been practicing since he was 18.
“In jiu-jitsu, you try to sustain the pain for as long as you can, and then when it gets unbearable you tap out,” he said. “I was working on getting out of a chokehold and I was trying to muscle through it. But after the class, I told my then-girlfriend, now my wife, that my neck was a little sore.”
He chalked it up to normal wear and tear from training and put some ice on his neck. His head later started hurting, but not in his forehead or around his temples like previous headaches — the pain emanated from the base of his skull.
“I was just sitting there, and all the sudden the headache went from the back of head all the way to the front of my head. My wife said she was talking to me and I was responding, but I was mumbling,” Scott said. “Then I fell on the floor. I was telling myself, ‘Leon, you need to get up. Get up.’ But my body was not responding.”
His wife called 911, and the paramedics rushed Scott to St. Francis Hospital, where doctors ran all kinds of tests, but couldn’t figure out what had happened.
“They thought maybe I had the flu or it was something I ate. Or they were saying I could have been on drugs — I told them no,” he said.
Scott spent two weeks in the hospital, but the EKGs and the MRIs revealed nothing to his doctors. So after two weeks, he was released and sent home.
“I’d lost all control of my right side. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t walk. My speech was kind of slurred, and my depth perception was off,” he said. “In the middle of the night, I had to go to the restroom. I tried to walk and I fell, so I had to crawl.”
Scott was readmitted onto the rehabilitation floor, where he spent the next three weeks relearning how to walk and meeting all the stroke patient goals with flying colors. But no one could tell him why he’d suffered a stroke.
“It was a very eye-opening experience for me, because I’d been athletic all my life,” he said. “I could play pick-up basketball, I could throw a football or throw a baseball — but suddenly I couldn’t do any of that anymore.
“It put everything into perspective. Life is short, and you’re not always guaranteed anything. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”
He figured he had two choices — he could either give up or he could embrace the situation as a challenge to overcome. He chose the latter.
After six weeks of outpatient therapy, he returned to his jiu-jitsu practice to develop his hand-eye coordination and movement. He was much slower than before, but he stuck with it for a month — until the second stroke hit.
“I was at my in-laws’ house with my wife. It was in the middle of the night, right after the Clemson-South Carolina game when Clemson had lost,” he said. “I woke up and I told my wife that I didn’t feel right.”
His speech started slurring, and his balance was off, so his wife took him back the hospital. An MRI showed he’d suffered another cerebellar stroke, this time on the right side of his brain. Worried and frustrated, his mother-in-law scheduled an appointment for him at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta — and within 20 minutes of meeting with the doctor, Scott had a diagnosis.
“He looked at my MRIs and X-rays and asked what kind of martial arts I’d been doing — he was a jiu-jitsu practitioner,” Scott said. “Getting out of that chokehold had ripped a small tear in my vertebral artery — one of the four main arteries in your neck — which bled out into my brain and caused the stroke.”
The doctor said if Scott stopped practicing jiu-jitsu, the tear would heal on its own and not require invasive surgery. But giving up on the martial art that had served as the cornerstone of his life wasn’t easy.
Scott now feels 92 percent recovered. He can no longer dribble or throw a football or a baseball — or if he does, it requires a lot of concentration. But he can cycle and run.
Back in the classroom, his students have been more than happy to play the role of scribe and have been inspired by their teacher’s courage and resilience.
“I was blessed and fortunate, because most people don’t survive the first stroke, much less the second,” he said. “I know that I’m here for a reason, I still have things to accomplish. This was a way for God to humble me and make me put everything into perspective — it changed my life.”
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