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Teen's comeback story highlights how identifying strokes early can make all the difference

Teen Stroke
Posted at 2:30 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 14:30:45-04

OSWEGO, Ill. — It may not be something we associate with kids, but suffering a stroke is one of the top 10 causes of death in children in the U.S. The signs can often be missed because of lack of awareness.

At 6-feet 4-inches tall and 280 pounds, 16-year-old Carson Cathey is a powerhouse on the football field.

“I bench a lot, probably around 350 pounds,” he said.

The Oswego High School junior is a defensive tackle and has been playing sports all his life.

What nobody knew was that the seemingly healthy 16-year-old had a ticking time bomb in his chest. He woke one Saturday feeling weak and numb on his left side.

“I didn't know what it was. I thought maybe my legs, my arm fell asleep or something,” said Carson.

Carson was having a stroke.

According to the American Heart Association, approximately 6 in 100,000 children suffer from a stroke at some point between birth and adulthood. And it’s more common in boys.

In Carson’s case, neurologists and specialists intervened to stop the stroke by using a clot-busting drug. But with no known risk factors, the cause was still a mystery.

“The neurologist, hematologist, cardiologists that were all there at that time kept saying, 'we can't find the problem,'” said Patrick Cathey, Carson’s father. “’We might have to send you home with blood thinners and you know, his athletic career and everything is over for the rest of his life.’”

That’s when pediatric cardiologist Dr. Joshua Murphy was brought in.

“It is very rare when we hear of a teenage boy coming in,” said Murphy, an interventional pediatric and congenital cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “With Carson, everything kept coming back normal.”

Dr. Murphy had a stroke himself at a relatively young age.

“He said, ‘I'm going to find it because I had the same thing happen to me when I was 37.’ And I'm like, ‘OK, what are the odds of that?’” said Patrick.

Murphy’s stroke was caused by a blood clot traveling through a patent foramen ovale or PFO – also known as a hole in the heart and then to his brain. That’s exactly what he found inside Carson’s chest.

“In my mind, it became that's it, that's it, that's where the stroke came from. That's where the clot came from. This is a problem. Let's get rid of it,” said Murphy.

Four weeks after the hole in his heart was repaired, Carson made a stunning return to the field.

“The coach asked him to talk to the team and he said, ‘you have to make every second on your field count because you don't know when it's your last second,’” said Patrick.

“To see that he was ready as soon as he was, the whole thing, it's an absolute miracle,” said Carson’s football coach Brian Cooney.

Today, Carson’s prognosis is good. His outlook on life is forever changed and he has words of advice to others.

“Just keep driving through,” he said. “No matter how many times you get put down, just keep getting back up and don't stop pushing.”

The American Heart Association recommends the acronym F.A.S.T to spot a stroke: face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty - means it’s time to call 911.