Opera Singer Overcomes Stroke That at First Left Him Speechless

PHOTO: Eric Jordan, 42, a bass singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, suffered a stroke in 2012 that initially rendered him speechless.
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Two-year-old Gabriel Jordan's squeals filled the Metropolitan Opera lobby as he ran around its plush, red carpet beneath twinkling chandeliers.

"There he is," said the boy's father, 42-year-old bass singer Eric Jordan, looking around at the source of the noise and smiling.

Jordan's booming voice still holds traces of the stroke that rendered him speechless on the day Gabriel's cries kept him from dying in his sleep.

The Onset

Gabriel woke up most mornings and cried until his parents put him in bed with them, and the morning of Jordan's stroke was no different. It was September 2012, and Jordan's wife fetched their crying child at 5:30 a.m.

Use FAST Acronym for Stroke Signs
  • F is for Face. Is the person's face drooping?
  • A is for Arms. Can he or she lift both arms, or is one weaker?
  • S is for Speech. Is the person's speech slurred? Can he or she repeat a simple sentence?
  • T is for Time. If someone around you has any of the above symptoms, call 911 immediately.

But something was wrong.

"We all settled back down, but Eric never did," Jordan's wife, Christina Arethas, said.

Irritated, she faced him and said his name.

"At that point, he was not able to look at me. He was not able to open his eyes," she said. "I started really raising my voice, thinking maybe he's in a dreamlike state. I hit him across -- I slapped him across the face a couple of times."

None of it worked, so she put Gabriel in another room and talked to Jordan alone. That was when she heard a thud.

"As soon as I stood up, I felt faint," Jordan said. "My right arm froze."

PHOTO: Eric Jordan holds his son, Gabriel, who he says woke him up during his stroke.
Courtesy Eric Jordan
PHOTO: Eric Jordan holds his son, Gabriel, who he says woke him up during his stroke.

Arethas found Jordan on the floor, bleeding from his head and thrashing about as if trying to stand up.

"At this point, his eyes were open," Arethas said. "I said, 'Please, if you can just say anything, say something to me right now.' And he couldn't."

She dialed 911 and medics rushed Jordan to New York Presbyterian Hospital. There, doctors told her Jordan had had a stroke.

When Arethas got her first good look at him, she saw that the right side of his face was drooping. Doctors peppered him with questions, but he couldn't answer any of them.

Arethas turned to a resident and asked, "Will he be like this?"

PHOTO: Eric Jordan poses with his wife after an opera performance.
Courtesy Eric Jordan
PHOTO: Eric Jordan poses with his wife after an opera performance.

The resident answered, "Worst case scenario, yes."

"That was when the world came crashing in on me," Arethas said.

The Hospital

Jordan had an ischemic stroke, meaning that one of the arteries leading to his brain was blocked. The interrupted blood flow deprived Jordan's brain of oxygen, which caused cells to die. In Jordan's case, the affected part of his brain was the left hemisphere.

"That's a very critical part of the brain," said Dr. Maksim Shapiro, an interventional radiologist at NYU Langone who did not treat Jordan but specializes in using brain catheterization to stop strokes. "We speak with the left hemisphere."

According to the National Stroke Association, one in four stroke survivors experiences a language impairment called aphasia. This can manifest as difficulty in speaking, understanding speech or reading.

"How ironic is it that for an opera singer like me to be a singer that cannot speak?"

When Jordan woke up, having undergone a regimen of potentially life-threatening drugs and surgery, his wife told him he would need to cancel his upcoming gigs.

"He could not say one word," she said. "For a person who was so verbal, so gregarious, I mean, you could not shut him up before, he could not say one word. That was pretty disheartening."

Jordan thought to himself that he would be fine in a few days, but the stroke had left him with aphasia, which meant he had a hard time formulating thoughts into speech, and apraxia, which made it difficult for his muscles to form the words. His right vocal cord was initially paralyzed by the stroke, he said.

He feared that his opera days were over a mere two years after starting at his dream job: singing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

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