Triathlete Eric Sarno helps stroke survivors like him

A stirring story of stroke, recovery and advocacy
Triathlete Eric Sarno helps stroke survivors like him
Images courtesy of Eric Sarno
Eric Sarno's new book

In the early months of 2007, Eric Sarno of Madison was training for a national triathlon that summer in Portland, Oregon, which he hoped would lead to a spot in the World Amateur Triathlon Championship. He was 36 years old.

Sarno never made it to Portland. The back pain he’d been experiencing over the previous few years intensified in early spring 2007. Complications from an unsuccessful epidural steroid injection produced headaches so severe he admitted himself to Meriter Hospital.

It was there, on the night of July 1, that Sarno suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke. A neurologist later told Sarno that the amount of bleeding in his brain — a half cup — is nearly always fatal.

A few hours after he collapsed at Meriter, an ambulance took Sarno to the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, where he underwent what would be the first of five brain surgeries. One third of his skull was removed. He spent 45 days in the hospital, then most of a year in nearly daily outpatient rehab.

Now, a dozen years on, Sarno has published a memoir, “Stroke Runner: My Story of Stroke, Survival, Recovery and Advocacy.” The book is available in Madison at Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street.

It documents Sarno’s highs and lows on the long road back from his stroke. One high was competing again: Sarno raced in the New York City Triathlon in 2011, raising money for the National Stroke Association. Most important, Sarno has become an advocate for stroke and brain injury patients, including helping launch a peer visitor program for patients and families in the UW Health University Hospital neurology unit.

I coauthored “Stroke Runner,” and lest there be any question of bias in this column, let me be clear: I am biased when it comes to Eric Sarno. I began the book project as a collaborator and ended as an admirer.

In this, I am not alone. Dr. Robert J. Dempsey is the chairman of neurological surgery at UW and wrote the book’s foreword. “Eric’s story is truly one of heroism,” Dr. Dempsey noted, “both personal on his part, and in the efforts of the many people who gave him the support necessary to make a truly miraculous recovery from an often-fatal type of stroke. That he would then dedicate so much of his life to the advocacy of paying back is equally remarkable.”

Sarno is originally from the Quad Cities, where he launched and serves as director for the Quad Cities Triathlon, the 20th edition of which was held last June. He came to Madison in the early 2000s to take a job in pharmaceutical sales, the field in which he is still employed.

Sarno is the proud father of two daughters, Madeline and Olivia, who were 8 and 6 when he suffered the stroke. He talks in the book about how important it is, in his mind, for a patient to define his or her own recovery. Early on, when some well-meaning friends were saying he would do Ironman races again, Eric just wanted to be able to hug his daughters. He had left sided neglect, an impaired awareness of stimuli, that prevented it. Today he can hug them and says there’s still nothing better.

To me, the emotional core of Eric’s story lies in his decision to become an advocate for stroke and brain injury patients.

It dates to his Quad Cities race in 2009 — just two years after his stroke — when the director of the stroke program at the University of Iowa spoke at the pasta dinner the night before the race.

Dr. Harold Adams said stroke awareness issues were important, but so was advocacy for stroke and brain injury survivors and their families. “He kept making eye contact with me,” Sarno recalled. “It almost felt like he was addressing me personally.”

Sarno began writing guest newspaper columns and paying informational visits to elected officials. More directly, he suggested to the nurse case manager at the UW neuro ICU that he might be able to help by speaking to patients and families in the hours and days immediately after a life-changing stroke or brain injury.

Sarno felt his own treatment at the UW was top-notch. The only thing missing was being able to talk with someone who’d been through what he was going through.

Informally at first, Sarno began stopping up to the neuro ICU. Not every family wanted to talk to him, but many did. Eventually, with help from Atlanta-based Ann Boriskie, founder of the national Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association, the UW program was formalized and Sarno is now one of many peer visitors.

In the book’s prologue, Eric recalls an early peer visit, when he sat and spoke with a man, a successful professional, who had recently suffered a stroke and was struggling to understand a path forward. “How do I know if I’m strong enough to get better?” he said.

There’s no easy answer to that one, but Eric tried. The man found his path. He’s now a peer visitor himself.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.