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Through Airmen's Eyes: Academy coach to return to work after two strokes

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- Every day Lt. Col. Dan Oosterhous is reminded to keep fighting when he glances at the bright green wristband on his right arm that reads: "Tough times don't last, tough people do."

Oosterhous, the men's tennis coach here and only active-duty head coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, wears the gift from his father everywhere he goes to keep a positive attitude amidst the constant discomfort and uncertainty he continues to experience after suffering two strokes this past spring.

"It's not something you wake up from and are better," Oosterhous said. "It doesn't go away. I have to believe I'm going to get better or else I won't. Instead of worrying about why this happened, I have to push forward."

A 1993 Academy graduate and coach here for the past four years, Oosterhous, 42, was active and healthy until the evening of Feb. 28. Feeling like a 20-year-old again after competing in a match against his Falcon tennis players, Oosterhous said he went to bed that night and woke up feeling dizzy, began vomiting, and felt an intense pain in his neck.

"It took me three tries just to get to the bathroom because I kept falling down," Oosterhous said. "I tried to sleep it off, but that wasn't the right thing to do. I needed medical attention right then."

As his symptoms lingered, Oosterhous said his wife drove him to the emergency room where medics informed he was having a stroke.

"I knew something was definitely wrong, but I had no idea it was a stroke," Oosterhous said. "That wasn't the first thing that came to mind. I'm young, healthy and I just didn't think stroke."

Tests revealed the stroke was triggered by a dissection of an artery. Oosterhous was put on a blood thinner, and for the next two weeks he doubled up on physical and occupational therapy to regain strength through the right side of his body. Little did he know he would relive the horrific ordeal a week later March 21.

"I woke up with the same headache and same pain except it was on the left side this time," Oosterhous said. "I couldn't believe it was happening all over again."

Oosterhous went to the hospital, where his symptoms progressed during the next 20 hours. He was unable to move his fingers or feel the left side of his body.

"Every minute something was fading away, and it was frustrating because I knew from my previous experience how long it was going to take to get things back," Oosterhous said.

"Medics gave me a clot-busting drug but there was nothing they could do to stop the stroke. 'It just had to evolve,' was how they put it."

Throughout the night he had difficulty breathing, speaking and swallowing.

"The upper part of the brain was working fine," Oosterhous said. "The signals that tell my muscles to move couldn't get through my brain stem because a tiny channel was blocking them. Since I'm unable to get the signal to my muscles, my brain has to learn through repetition and effort."

Oosterhous remained in the hospital for four weeks and was unable to drive for two months. Family members, co-workers and players from his team showed their support by visiting him and reading his online blog.

"Journaling has been therapeutic," Oosterhous said. "My journals have grown into longer, more thoughtful, deeper experiences of learning. I've learned how I operate, how I tick, how I go about my daily life and what is important to me. I've been able to spend more time with my three kids this summer than the past four summers I've been here."

Throughout the recovery process, Oosterhous said he's consistently set goals to stay motivated. Two goals he accomplished included coaching his team here during the Mountain West Conference in April and commissioning two seniors from the team during graduation in May.

"In February I had promised them I would do their commissioning," Oosterhous said. "After my stroke I wasn't sure if that was still possible. I decided to keep that as one of my goals to be able to get out of the hospital, be able to walk onto the stage and do the oath of office with them. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I was so glad I could do it. I was in my uniform for the first time again, and it was the neatest thing I've done in my 20-year Air Force career."

Oosterhous said he's been able to apply lessons he learned here as a cadet to surviving two strokes.

"I've learned why we do certain things at the Academy, such as play sports," Oosterhous said. "It's because they teach bigger life lessons. When you get sick and your life is completely changed, 'How do you deal with that?' Being able to have the positive attitude and work ethic to get through this has been nice because I know that if I can handle this, I can handle anything."

Oosterhous is on narcotics and a strong blood thinner to alleviate the pain and prevent him from stroking again -- although another one could occur at any point.

"Doctors don't want to operate because it would be very risky," Oosterhous said. "Pilot training was the hardest year of my life, my four years at the Academy were very difficult, but this is something that is going to be with me for my entire life."

His message to his players: You can choose your attitude.

"You can't choose what happens to you," Oosterhous said. "Hard work doesn't guarantee that you'll win a match or that you're going to be the best on the team but if you have a good attitude, good things will happen."

Oosterhous is walking short distances without a cane. He is swimming. He even took on wheelchair tennis during a clinic in May.

"I still have a long way to go in my recovery and it will take years to get back anywhere close to my pre-stroke levels, but I only know how to keep fighting," he said.

Oosterhous participated in adaptive sports camps this week through the Air Force Wounded Warrior program where he was able to interact with other active-duty members who also became ill or were wounded in combat.

"The goal is for participants to realize they can be active again," Oosterhous said. "The subset of that goal is to pick people for the Warrior Games."

Oosterhous plans to return to work Aug. 8. He plans to begin coaching the men's tennis team again Aug. 23.

"The cadets motivate me, and I think this is the best place in the world to work," Oosterhous said. "I'm around athletics which is a huge part of recovery. The four-year process of bringing kids out of high school and graduating them as officers is really neat to me. My tennis coach here was my biggest role model and that's what I hope I can do for these cadets."

Oosterhous said three weeks from now at 3:00 p.m. he will be ready for his players.

"I want to work and this is the work I love," he said. 


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