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Last August, Iraq War veteran Kyle Aslin was on a camping trip with his wife and more than 20 friends and family in Steelville, Mo. That Friday night, he had been on the grill making dinner, playing a game of washers, and drinking a few beers with his buddies. As he was approaching his wife, Stephanie, at the campground that evening, he started wistfully looking into the distance. Stephanie, 24, a nurse at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, thought it might have been the beers, but asked him to sit by her anyway. She asked if he was OK, but he couldn’t get the words out. She held his hands, and realized that his right side wasn’t moving. At that point her nursing skills kicked in, and she immediately recognized what was going on: Her 25-year-old husband was having a stroke.
Up until that day, Kyle, a St. Louis native, had already been through a lot for his age. He knew he wanted to join the military his whole life, just like his dad and uncle. They would talk about their service throughout his childhood, arguing about who was in the better branch. As soon as he was old enough, Kyle signed up for the Marines, and, as Stephanie proudly attests, he was good at it. In 2006, he was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, for almost a year. At the height of some of the most intense combat, Kyle was in constant firefights and lost many of his fellow Marines, but he survived. A few years later, he went back to Iraq. That time, he says, the deployment was a bit less tough than the first, but still no picnic. During both of his trips abroad, Stephanie, who he started dating in high school, and his family worried about him every day: whether he would come back, and if he did, whether he would be ok. They never expected him to be on the brink of death from a stroke at 25.
Once Stephanie realized what was happening to Kyle, she called 911. An ambulance came and he was airlifted to Mercy Hospital St. Louis, where he was rushed to the ER. Kyle wasn’t moving.
“Because of his young age, we wanted to be as aggressive as possible. He had had a really big stroke,” explains Dr. William Logan, a neurologist at Mercy. “We recognized that due to the seriousness of his stroke, he probably had a large blockage. We gave him a tPA [a clost-busting drug], but it wasn’t working. The interventional radiologist did a thrombectomy and was able to remove most of the clot, but couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get all of it.”
It turned out it wasn’t a straight blood clot that caused Kyle’s stroke. The doctors later found out that he had a large tumor on his heart, and believed that part of it broke off and traveled up to his brain. But no matter what caused the stroke, Kyle was going downhill.
“The problem is, how long was his brain without oxygen? Since he was out in Steelville, it took a little bit to get him in,” explains Logan. “We were worried that too much damage had been done.”
Kyle became lethargic over the next two days. His brain was swelling, so doctors would have to remove part of his skull, but, even then, the prognosis wasn’t good. Logan explained the situation to Stephanie and Kyle’s family. Stephanie then had to make one of the most difficult decisions in her life. If doctors didn’t quickly remove part of his skull, he would die. If they did go ahead with the surgery, he more likely than not would be paralyzed and live out his life in a nursing home. But Stephanie knew her husband was strong. They had only been married a little less than a year, but they had been together for eight years. She had seen him go through the stress of combat in Iraq twice and still come back smiling, working out five days a week and being the best husband she could imagine. She told the doctors to go ahead with the surgery. So the neurosurgeons took out a piece of his skull, and harvested it in his stomach.
Kyle was in intensive care for 13 days, then in rehab for another 13. Thirteen, Stephanie says, must be his lucky number. He got better. After several weeks of therapy, Kyle started walking, then began running. He still doesn’t have feeling in his right side, but he can move normally. He can speak, too. Sometimes he has trouble getting out what he wants to say, but he can often have a normal conversation.
“He’s said my name four times since he had the stroke,” Stephanie says. “It’s the best.”
Just three months after his stroke, Kyle says that he doesn’t remember much about what happened, but he remembers how a piece of his skull felt in his stomach, and it was painful. Eventually his medical team was able to put his skull back together, like Humpty Dumpty, Stephanie says. And although he still has a long way to go, his experience in the military has made him strong, patient, and humble. Kyle doesn’t get frustrated when he can’t get the words out. He patiently and lovingly talks to his wife, sometimes trying to write what he has to say, a new milestone in his recovery. She’s just as patient with him, waiting for him to get out every word, helping him along the way.
Some parts of Kyle’s life have been put on hold because of his stroke. Earlier this year, he was accepted to the Eastern Missouri Police Academy. After his military service, he wanted to continue helping and protecting people, and he thought the next best thing might be serving the community as a police officer. That will have to wait. Now, someone has to be with him at all times. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t think he needs the help, but he’s grateful. From cutting their grass to holding fundraisers to help them pay for their steep medical bills, friends, family, and the community have come out in force to help him and Stephanie.
“It’s amazing how your life can change so quickly,” says Stephanie with tears in her eyes. “It makes you appreciate everything that you have. People have been so great to us, and this kind of thing makes you appreciate the people in your life more than ever.” Kyle nods in agreement.
In December, Kyle has to undergo open-heart surgery to remove his tumor. But he and his wife are optimistic. They know how much he’s been through already, his strength, his dedication to his family and his country. He says he wants to take his experiences, both from his stroke and in the military, to help people, give them inspiration, and give them hope. And he has every reason to believe that someday, he will.
To help the Aslin's pay for their medical bills, contact Caroline Kemper at 314-913-4839 to donate to their trust fund.