June 21, 2004: Headlines: COS - Samoa: Sailing: Strokes: Miami Herald: A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. Now the Samoa RPCV is sailing the world to spread the word

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Samoa: Peace Corps Samoa : The Peace Corps in Samoa: June 21, 2004: Headlines: COS - Samoa: Sailing: Strokes: Miami Herald: A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. Now the Samoa RPCV is sailing the world to spread the word

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A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. Now the Samoa RPCV is sailing the world to spread the word

A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. Now the Samoa RPCV  is sailing the world to spread the word

A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. Now the Samoa RPCV is sailing the world to spread the word

Stroke survivor charting a new course

A stroke turned Les Bisell's life around. He's sailing the world to spread the word.



Aside from a nasty gash swelling crimson on his right leg, Les Bissell looks the picture of health as he sits on the stern of his 28-foot sailboat, Hope. The noonday sun is baking, turning the cramped cabin into a sauna, but a stiff breeze off Biscayne Bay cools the deck as Hope sways dockside at the Miami Yacht Club.

Hope will be home, for at least the next two years, for Bissell, 39, who wants to sail it around the world. Solo, if he has to. As a stroke survivor, he is on a mission to spread the word about strokes, the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart attacks and cancer.

After his stroke two years ago, he couldn't walk or talk but now his recovery is nearly complete.

Looking at Bissell, 6-foot-3, lean, tan and blond with carefree stubble framing his youthful face, you would never imagine what he's been through. He believes the stroke resulted from a ripped carotid artery suffered during a dive in the Caribbean.

''I thought I pulled a muscle in my neck or had an earache while swimming,'' he says. ``Who knew I had damaged my artery? I didn't even get colds, rarely got sick. This was completely out of left field.''


Bissell had returned from that diving vacation and was in his Washington, D.C., apartment with his then-fianceé (the two eventually split) when he collapsed. ``It was as if someone had turned a switch off on that side of my body.''

Bissell, whose father had had a stroke at 68, was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors administered TPA, a recently approved drug designed to dissolve blood clots. If applied within three hours of an ischemic stroke, the drug can reduce the chance of brain damage.

''It's like a Drano for the arteries,'' explains Dr. José Romano, a stroke neurologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Bissell, who had once cycled cross-country from California to his native New Jersey, had to learn how to walk and talk again. He quit his half-pack-a-day cigarette habit to lessen the chance of another stroke. It would be six months before he was able to return to his job as a consultant in D.C.

''My speech was sporadic. I would say the wrong letters in the wrong order. It was a very frightening experience,'' he recalls.

Depression also loomed.

``In a sense I was embarrassed. I went from being strong and alert to not understanding anything and being at the mercy of others.''


The idea for an around-the-world trek to spread the word about strokes came in the fall of 2002 when a recuperating Bissell was sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

''He's always had an independent spirit,'' his older sister Susan Beach says on the phone from her Annapolis, Md., home. ``He doesn't do what others do. If everyone's going North, he'll go West.''

''I think it's great,'' says Romano, the neurologist. ``If he can do it . . . and if he's able to carry on to spread the word about stroke awareness and can do it safely, good for him.''

According to the National Stroke Association, each year 750,000 Americans suffer a stroke and 160,000 people will die as a result. Strokes occur when a blood clot blocks a vessel or artery or when a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to the brain. Symptoms include blurred vision, numbness in an arm or leg, a sudden atypical headache or speech impediments.

The risk of having a stroke can be reduced by lowering blood pressure to under 140/90 and total cholesterol to under 200, proper nutrition and regular exercise. Diets high in fats, salt and sugar and low in fiber found in fruits and vegetables increase the risk for stroke. So does obesity. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have a stroke. Smoking can double or quadruple the risk factor for strokes. If ceased, Romano says, within two years or so a person's risk is as low as a non-smoker's.

Before setting sail, Bissell quit his job, lined up sponsors, including the National Stroke Association, and began his journey in April from Annapolis with a crewmate who has since bailed.

He'd love a new partner and may have found one via an Internet posting. He's docked in Miami a few days awaiting word on whether that meeting will happen. If not, he's prepared to sail solo to Panama this week. Then the Galapagos, French Polynesia, Samoa and New Zealand, where he'll remain a few months to ride out cyclone season. Then on to Australia and Africa, where he will also stay anchored awhile during hurricane season.

''I'm good by myself,'' he says. ``I'm not a loner. I love company. But I'm focused on what I'm doing and there's no shortage of things to think about on the boat. I'm not overly worried about the loneliness part. I'm concerned about the safety aspect.''


So far Bissell and his trusty -- if frightfully small for such an undertaking -- boat, have visited the Carolinas, Savannah, Ga., Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Miami.

''There were squalls in Florida along the way that were like the devil himself running me down,'' he says. A sink in the bathroom, set below the waterline, spewed nearly 100 gallons of water inside the cabin.

Aside from those problems, and the gash on his leg from slipping, it's been, well, clear sailing.

''It's a good way of life, I'm doing something worthwhile and I've made an impact,'' he says.

Bissell, whose command of languages includes Samoan (he once worked as a Peace Corps volunteer), breaks into a smile. ''Maybe I'll settle down with some Polynesian woman in a hut, who knows?'' he teases.

In the meantime, compact discs, his guitar, books -- including World Cruising Routes and Landfalls of Paradise -- and a state-of-the-art Iridium satellite communications system are at Bissell's disposal. Not to mention a tether to keep him grounded to the boat.

``If you fall overboard it would sail away; that's completely on my mind all the time.''

Thoughts such as these worried his mom, Amy Martin, but she has come around. In fact, she's now his biggest fan, sending money, putting together a scrapbook and offering moral support.

''He's never loved anything like sailing so I say, go for whatever you want to do,'' Martin says on the phone from Las Vegas, where she was celebrating her birthday. ``. . . A near death experience changes your life. . . . You've got to use your life to your advantage and live for your heart.''

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Story Source: Miami Herald

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Samoa; Sailing; Strokes



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