Men often define themselves by their jobs, their families, or how many women they’ve slept with. Dr. Eyad Yehyawi, an optometrist from Corville, Iowa, found his identity in his training only to have it threatened when a sudden and devastating stroke left questions as to whether he could ever work out again. Here’s how he answered the challenge.
In the spring of 2005, Yehyawi was in admirable shape. Clocking in at 5'10" and 192 pounds, he carried just 10% body fat. He’d been a two-sport athlete in college and still ran two miles regularly, completing the distance in just 13 minutes. One week away from finishing his residency at the University of Missouri at St. Louis hospital, Yehyawi, known as one of the fittest guys in the building, was asked by his colleagues to help an overweight man out of bed. As he pulled the man to his feet, Yehyawi found that his own leg had fallen asleep. Thinking nothing of it, he went on with his day, but an hour later his leg was still numb. Luckily, a colleague forced Yehyawi to go to the emergency room.
After an examination, Yehyawi, only 28, was told that he’d had a stroke. In disbelief, the young man waved o≠ the news. “I signed myself out against medical advice and left,” he says. However, after speaking with his father, also a physician, Yehyawi decided to return home to Iowa City to get an MRI. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke—I live a very clean life,” he says. “I was in complete shock . . . until I saw the MRI and it showed I had a lesion on my brain. I teared up and got a little shaky—I really thought I was done.” As hours turned into days, Yehyawi began to accept the truth of his situation. But once the seriousness of what had happened sank in, he still had a hard time accepting that everything he knew in life was supposed to change—including his love of working out. “I remember my doctors pausing and saying that it would be in my best interest not to do physical activity for a while. I could eventually jog again, but as far as heavy weight workouts, they said I shouldn’t do them at all.”
Though he was crushed by the news, Yehyawi wasn’t about to let his body wither away completely, so he tried to do what he could. “I remember going for a jog,” he says, “and I made it about a lap before I just broke down and started crying. I could feel my heart beating and I couldn’t stop thinking about blood clots. Every time I tried to push myself, it was in the back of my mind.”
Ultimately, Yehyawi’s muscles began turning to mush, and, like so many people, he turned to food for comfort. Munching on pizza, burgers, and ice cream, he ballooned to 210 pounds. Healthy foods reminded him of exercise, and since he could no longer partake in the workouts of his youth, he couldn’t bear the idea of eating like a guy who worked out. “I’d look at a menu and see grilled chicken breast and broccoli and get upset,” he says.
In December 2005, six months after the stroke, Yehyawi saw a family friend who is a neurologist, and he went in for another MRI. After looking at the results, that friend dropped a bombshell. “He told me that my stroke had been caused by a congenital heart defect that I’d had my whole life,” he says. Since Yehyawi had been in great shape before the stroke, his friend reasoned, there was no reason he couldn’t get back to that level. “He also said that I wasn’t really living my life anymore—that I’d lost a piece of who I was and that not working out would put me at risk for other things later in life.” The two concurred that as long as Yehyawi was diligent about taking his medication, there was only a small chance that he would have another stroke.
Now committed to reclaiming his fitness, Yehyawi quickly learned it would be much tougher to drop the pounds than it had been to pack them on. “When I got on that treadmill for the first time, I barely made it a mile,” he says, “and when I first touched the weights, my joints really hurt. I felt out of place, like a beginner.” But it wasn’t long before he was back in the groove, and a certain fitness magazine (yes, yours truly) helped keep him motivated to get there. “I always read the Success Stories,” says Yehyawi, “and I got a lot of good workout tips and meal plans from the mag.” He started lifting heavy weights for a low number of sets, and he did his cardio in the morning. He tapered his carbs throughout the day, a typical dinner being grilled salmon and steamed vegetables. To support his heart through the hard training, he swears by omega-3 tablets, which he takes three times a day. By September 2006, Yehyawi was back to his old self.
“I feel better than I have in years,” he says, “and I have my confidence back. The fear I had is also gone. I haven’t had a bad day since I got back on the horse—and I won’t fall off it again."