This past spring, a seemingly typical workout session for Montel Williams took a scary turn when he found himself having a stroke in a New York City hotel gym. Now, the television personality and host is speaking out about his health scare in order to help spark a conversation about stroke and stroke recovery.
A few minutes after 9 A.M. on May 30, 2018, Williams was in the middle of his third set of dumbbell squats in the gym. “I was on about rep 15, and I heard this ‘pop,’” Williams tells SELF.
“My first thought was, ‘There’s nobody in this gym, so where did that noise come from?’ So I look to the left of me where I thought the pop came from, and there was nobody there," he says. "By the time I turn my head back around in front of me, the whole gym starts to kaleidoscope and I have this wave of exhaustion come over me.” The side of his mouth started to droop and he began to drool.
Williams realized immediately that he was having a stroke, thanks to an episode of The Dr. Oz Show that he caught a couple months earlier. “I thought, ‘Don’t tell me you just had a stroke. I just had a stroke!’” Williams says. Feeling off-balance and barely able to move his limbs, Williams grabbed onto the wall and made his way to the elevator and back up to the 14th floor of the hotel, where his wife was showering in their room. “When I walked in the room, I collapsed on the couch and I called out to her, ‘Tara! Call an ambulance right now and tell them your husband just had a stroke.'”
Fortunately for Williams, one of NewYork-Presbyterian’s specially configured stroke unit emergency vehicles was three blocks away when his wife called 911. They were able to do a CAT scan immediately and video-chat with the hospital to determine the right course of treatment (which includes blood pressure medication to stem the bleeding). “A doctor appears on the video screen and says, ‘Mr. Williams, you did have a stroke, and in fact it’s still ongoing right now,’” he recalls.
Williams ultimately spent 21 days in the hospital, beginning in the ICU.
“I was barely lucid, in and out of consciousness. The first five days [in the ICU] were such a blur,” Williams says. “Most of what I remember from the first five days is that every time I woke up, my wife was just right there saying ‘I love you.’ And every time I went to sleep she was right there saying ‘I love you.’ And that's really what kept me going.”
The other voice he remembers was that of Demi Lovato. “I had on my playlist on my phone that Demi Lovato song ‘Tell Me You Love Me,’ and I literally played that song in my head over and over and over again,” he remembers. “It gave me something I could really focus on and to really say, ‘I’m going to get better, I’m going to get out of this.’”
When he was stable enough to leave ICU, things were still looking grim. “I couldn’t walk without a walker and I was having some difficulty with my jaw and gaining my speech back,” Williams says. “Not being able to stand and go to the bathroom by myself? I literally was afraid that I was done. I didn’t think that I was going to recover from this.”
“Stroke is a general term used to describe an alteration in blood flow to the brain,” Philip Stieg, M.D. Ph.D., chief of neurosurgery at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine and the treating neurosurgeon for Williams, tells SELF.
The majority of strokes are ischemic, but Williams experienced a less common hemorrhagic stroke, or bleeding stroke, which account for about 13 percent of strokes, according to the American Stroke Association (ASA). A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened vessel ruptures, causing blood to accumulate into the local area and compress the surrounding brain tissue, per the ASA.
Williams’s bleed occurred in a particularly risky area. Dr. Stieg says, “Not only did he have a hemorrhagic stroke, but he had it in the back part of his brain, called the cerebellum, on the left side”—which is a brain region responsible for the coordination of body motion on the left side of the body. Because the compartment where the cerebellum sits is very small, bleeding here can be dangerous. “When you have an expanding blood clot, something has to give—and that’s the brain. That’s where you get not only the primary injury from the bleeding episode, but then you get a secondary injury because of the pressure that the mass of the blood clot causes,” Dr. Stieg explains. “That's what makes that a life-threatening condition.”
Although many hemorrhagic strokes are precipitated by lifestyle factors—like smoking, not exercising, not managing stress, or having chronically high blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure—sometimes they occur spontaneously in perfectly healthy people like Williams, Dr. Stieg says. “It’s something that they call a transient event, where it can come out of nowhere,” Williams adds. “I had never, ever, ever in my life had a history of hypertension, high blood pressure, nothing.”
In addition to those lifestyle factors, genetic factors can contribute to stroke risk. “It’s very prevalent in African American males,” Williams notes. He also says that he may have had a blood vessel abnormality in his cerebellum. There are several blood vessel abnormalities that can exist from birth and predispose you to stroke, Dr. Stieg says.
Williams worked incredibly hard at his recovery.
After nine days in rehab at NewYork-Presbyterian, Williams spent six weeks doing intensive rehab at a facility two blocks away from his in-laws’ home in Jackson, Tenn. The early progress he saw from putting a lot of effort into the exercises inspired him to give rehab his all. “I noticed clearly, the third day of walking with the walker, that if I paid attention and did the things they were telling me to do, walking with that walker was a little easier.”
He also did exercises to combat nystagmus, a condition in which the eyes move involuntarily. “Both eyeballs were shaking like crazy,” he says. But he noticed small improvements after a couple of days of visual focusing exercises. “You get out of rehab what you put in," he adds.
Williams’s recovery was so successful that he even saw improvements in his multiple sclerosis (MS), a central nervous system condition causing nerve damage that disrupts communication between the brain and body. “The therapy I did for the stroke mitigated and substantially lessened some of the symptoms of MS,” he says. “My brain is going through a healing process. The brain is such an incredibly resilient organ. If you work hard, your brain might give you back the things you thought you might not get.”
Today, Williams is nearly back at 100 percent. “He probably will always know he had this event, but he’s near back to having a normal lifestyle,” Dr. Stieg says. “He’s worked really hard on his recovery.”
“We’re so afraid to talk about stroke in this country—we just don’t talk about it,” Williams says.
He believes that stifling the conversation is a sense of shame that comes with the impairments that can result from a stroke. “People are embarrassed by some of the deficits that they are left with,” he says.
Dr. Stieg adds, "People that have a neurological deficit as a result of anything are somewhat uncomfortable talking about it, primarily for the reason that it’s affecting their brain and their mind, and it makes them feel like less of a human being.”
Part of changing the way we talk about strokes is changing the way we look at recovery. “Sometimes [strokes] can be devastating where people lose motor and speech function,” Dr. Stieg says. “But many times they regain function, and [Williams] is obviously an example of that … His is also a story of hope—which is the story of stroke.”
Williams wants people to understand that having a stroke or discussing the topic is not something to be embarrassed about. "It is something that happens in society and there is a way out of the depths of the darkest times,” he says.
Nearly fully recovered, Williams has returned to work. Last week, he shot the first episode of a show called Military Makeover: Operation Careers, which helps place vets in the workforce. But make no mistake, he is determined to take it easier these days, and spend more time with his wife, Tara. “As committed as she has been to being my caregiver, I need to commit to her,” he says. “I don’t want to miss out on another second with her.”
Williams has also scaled back on the intense two-hour workouts he used to do daily. He’s no longer waking up at 3 A.M. to catch a flight three times a week, and has pulled back on micromanaging his four businesses. “It’s time to calm it down. I’ve really taken that aboard and I’m trying to live my life a little less stressfully," he says.
These days, he doesn’t stress out about the little stuff. “I’m not overreacting to things. What I screamed about three months ago, I’m not even slightly raising my blood pressure over today,” Williams says. And he’s started incorporating naps into his daily routine. “In fact, as soon as we get done talking,” he says, “I’m going to go take an hour nap."