The clock was ticking on Chris Stewart. No one was sure how much time had gone by or how much was left, but the situation was dire as he was wheeled into surgery two months ago.
The radio play-by-play voice for Alabama basketball and baseball had suffered a stroke sometime in the early-morning hours on April 16. It had taken doctors some time to diagnose Stewart, then 47, as a stroke victim. Hours had already passed when the neurologist prepared to operate.
“Ordinarily the surgeon and physician would go talk to the family after they’ve done an initial diagnosis,” Stewart said. “… But he sends his chief nurse, and says ‘Tell her that if she insists on me coming and laying out what the situation is (before surgery), then I’ll do it. But the truth is her husband doesn’t have that time. We can’t afford that time for him.’”
Stewart is now recovering at his home in Hoover a little more than two months after the stroke. He still requires rest and his memory can be spotty at times. Those effects should wear off with time. His left eye droops slightly, though that can be fixed through therapy. He suffered no paralysis, loss of mobility or long-term memory loss.
“I’m using the doctor’s term: It’s a miracle that I survived it first and foremost, but also that I’m in the condition that I’m in,’” Stewart said.
Doctors often hope that treating a stroke victim in the first two or three hours can prevent any long-term brain damage. Stewart went at least seven hours before surgery began.
His wife, Christy, had noticed at about 4:30 a.m. that he was nestled in the fetal position in bed. He was grunting slightly. When he was still unresponsive at about 6:30 a.m., paramedics arrived to take Stewart to St. Vincent’s hospital.
But even then, doctors were unsure what had happened. His blood pressure was elevated but not extreme. His medical history didn’t point to a stroke.
“I don’t fit the stereotypical age and profile of stroke victim,” Stewart said.
Tests and checks ruled out other possibilities. It took a second CT scan to reveal a blockage in an artery to his brain. Stewart was transferred from St. Vincent’s to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center for surgery. It was almost noon when Dr. Jitendra Sharma began operating.
“He said there was no procedure, no next step,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘This was either going to work, or you weren’t going to make it.’”
Hindsight revealed some subtle symptoms that could have foreshadowed the stroke. He had some slight pain when turning his head from one side to another, and there were vision problems from time to time.
That didn’t set off alarm bells for someone who was otherwise healthy, though. Things had been fine just hours before Stewart was unresponsive in bed. He had gone to a birthday party the day before and spent time with family. It was a normal night until it wasn’t.
“There were no warning signs whatsoever that night,” said his wife, Christy. “Not one. It’s just crazy to me that you can go to sleep feeling perfectly normal and then, just a few hours later, your whole life changes. It’s unreal.”
The margin between life and death was fractional. If it had happened a couple of days earlier, Stewart could have been alone in a hotel room during Alabama baseball’s road trip to Texas A&M. It would be all but certain that no one would have found him before he passed away.
If the stroke had happened earlier in the night, Stewart’s wife also might not have found him until it was too late. As neurologists say, ‘time is brain’ during a stroke.
“If you’re outside of that window, you’re either going to die or you’re just going to be a vegetable,” Christy said. “… That definitely has crossed my mind.”
“She saved me,” he said. “She really did.”
Coaches, administrators and co-workers reached out to Stewart by the dozen. Avery Johnson has been in contact often. Nick and Terry Saban checked in. Former basketball coach Anthony Grant also connected, as did former baseball coach Mitch Gaspard and his wife, Kim. UA director of athletics Greg Byrne was in touch, as were several other Alabama athletics employees. His basketball radio partner, Bryan Passink, received regular updates and kept others in the loop. Bill Battle visited while Stewart was in the hospital.
Stewart was watching an Alabama baseball game less than a week after the stroke when coach Brad Bohannon did an in-game interview. One of the questions was about Stewart.
“(Bohannon) basically says at one point, ‘Chris, if you’re watching, we’re thinking about you, we’re praying for you and we love you,’” Stewart said.
Friends kept the Stewarts stocked with meals for weeks afterward. He was receiving “Get Well Soon” cards even into June. Stewart still finds messages on his phone from people who had reached out while he was in the hospital. Lee Tracey, his baseball broadcast partner, was often stopped on his way to the Sewell-Thomas Stadium press box. Coaches, players, staffers and fans all asked for updates.
“At a time like this, you realize that a place even as big as Alabama how much of a family it truly becomes,” Stewart said, “because of the people that reached out and the way they showed genuine care and concern for me and my family.”
Tracey soldiered through the final month of the season. Eli Gold filled in for a few games in the play-by-play chair when he was available, but Tracey was by himself on the air most of the time.
Stewart did make a brief return to work before the end of the season. He hadn’t suffered any speech problems, just one more miracle in the aftermath of it all. He was at Sewell-Thomas Stadium for Alabama’s game against Ole Miss on May 18 and stepped into the booth for the sixth inning.
Tracey drove the broadcast for the top of the inning with Stewart chiming in occasionally. Then he turned things over after the commercial break to Stewart, who made the call as Alabama scored the go-ahead run in a 3-0 win. It gave him a boost to see that he could still do his job.
“His recovery has been amazing,” Tracey said. “The fact that he had a stroke and, number one, appears to have no speech problem whatsoever, that is just a godsend right there. Really, he has very little lasting problems.”
Stewart plans on being ready to work again this fall as the sideline reporter for the Crimson Tide Sports Network during football games. He also hosts the weekly TV shows for Saban and Johnson. There’s still plenty of time to continue his recovery and resume those duties as well.
Basketball season might be a bigger challenge, with its continuous action and hectic pace. But there’s still months left for his vision to recover for that.
“Being where I am, and from what I’ve been told by the doctor, I’m extremely encouraged that everything will be back to normal in time,” Stewart said. “The thing I’ve got to be mindful of, I have to be patient. Because it won’t be tomorrow. I’m not going to say it won’t be next week, but the likelihood of it being next week is very slim.”
Survival was one miracle for Stewart. The expectation of a full recovery is a second miracle that may have been even more unlikely.
“Because of my faith, I’m comfortable and I understand there are things that can’t be explained other than ‘God took care of that,’” he said. “I’m very much of the belief that that’s what it was.”
The last two months at home have given him a chance to spend time with his children while he rests and recovers. He went to an awards program for his daughter. He’s been at baseball games; but they’ve been for little league all-stars instead of Alabama. There will be time for the Crimson Tide later.
He’s in good spirits and improving health. There’s been enough excitement this spring.
“I’m not shocked I had a stroke,” Stewart said with a laugh. “I’m shocked it didn’t happen after Collin (Sexton) made that runner against Texas A&M (in the SEC Tournament).”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.