Tiffany Arnold, AP
Roger Elliott was home alone Christmas Day when he had his first stroke. The year was 1997 and Elliott was 29. But because of a rare, untreatable genetic illness, it wouldn't be his last. He has survived four strokes before he turned 40.
“I have moyamoya,” said Elliott, who's now 41. People with moyamoya disease have malformed blood vessels, making them more susceptible to strokes, said Dr. Marian LaMonte, chief of neurology at Saint Agnes Hospital Center in Baltimore. The strokes have impaired Elliott's motor skills. His speech is slow and he has limited use of his left side. LaMonte said it's a hard diagnosis for most patients to accept.
“They give up, they get depressed,” she said. “They wait on disability. They sit at home and don't exercise. They die young.”
But not Elliott. His story is one of triumph.
Since the diagnosis, Elliott has been focusing on other aspects of his well-being, nurturing his mind, body and his spirituality. Elliott bikes five miles to and from work each day on his mountain bike. He has nearly 2,000 miles on it since he bought it in November 2008 — it is bike No. 3.
Before his first stroke, Elliott said he was healthy and worked as a truck driver. The career had taken him through 47 states in the continental United States and three Canadian provinces over a span of five years. He earned 28 cents a mile and averaged 3,200 miles a week. But his trucking days ended Christmas Day in 1997.
He said he remembered suddenly feeling funny. “I lost the use of my left side,” Elliott recalled. Since he regained feeling on his left side after 10 minutes, he ignored it. His second stroke came the next day. Only this time, he had to be hospitalized. Elliott said he remembered being in an ambulance and waking up in a hospital days later.
LaMonte explained that the second stroke was a hemorrhagic stroke. “A third to half of the people will die,” she said of hemmorrhagic strokes. For Elliott, the stroke temporarily impaired his speech and temporarily paralyzed the left side of his body. He regained his motor skills and speech after the strokes in 1997.
In 1998 he was diagnosed with moyamoya. “I realized my education was lacking,” Elliott said. “My disease wouldn't let me go back to driving trucks.” He started tinkering with computers. Over time and through a process of trial and error, Elliott learned how to build computers. Furthermore, in his spare time, he flew and designed aircraft from his own hand-built computer system.
The third time Elliott had a stroke was the last day of February in 2002. A security guard at a time, he was in his office when he couldn't feel his right side. His thought at the time was, “not again.” He lost his job as a security guard because the stroke affected his speech, motor skills and slowed his reaction time. “The third stroke took it again and didn't give it back,” Elliott said.
In the spring of 2002, Elliott said he went back to church and accepted God in July 2002. Elliott was in charge of the church's food pantry, often lifting and carrying the boxes with one hand during deliveries.
In September 2002 Elliott had his fourth and last stroke. Afterwards LaMonte referred him to Johns Hopkins Medical Center neurologist Dr. Rafael Tamargo for surgery. “It doesn't fix the moyamoya,” LaMonte said. “This surgery outsmarts it.”
In the procedure, a portion of Elliott's skull was removed and a large artery in his skin was “flipped” and sewed into his brain, LaMonte explained. The vessels then grow into the brain, she said.
“He's such an inspiration, an against-all-odds type of guy,” she said. “He could have more strokes until he dies. He survived surgery, (and) the deadliest kind of stroke. He's really something else. He could be anyone's inspiration.”
Elliott recently gave up his role as the head of his church's food pantry so he could focus his attention on going back to school. “I want to learn everything I can about computers,” he says.