Stroke survivor Justin Occhionero


How stroke changed me

It took a stroke and two brain surgeries to help Justin understand what was missing from his life

Chapter 1 What’s happening in my brain?

Three years ago I started noticing my left arm was a little numb. I thought maybe my girlfriend had slept on my arm, or I pinched a nerve. I didn’t really think anything of it.

A couple of weeks went by and I noticed numbness in my face. Then one day I was going to work and I just had this feeling like, OK although I’m not in pain right now, something is wrong. I need to get this checked out. So I called an ambulance.

They got me to a CT scan, then an MRI. They found a problem with blood vessels in my brain; it’s called a cavernous malformation. They told me it could bleed and cause a stroke. I needed surgery to remove it.

This was June. But I was thinking about a wedding in October where I was going to be best man, and I was thinking of all the other things I was planning to do that summer. So I scheduled the surgery for November.

Well, I didn’t make it that far. In August I had a hemorrhagic stroke.

That was the most pain I ever felt. I didn’t know what was happening. I could barely walk and people said I was slurring my words. Someone asked me, “Justin, are you drunk?”

So I had emergency surgery. It was a 13-hour operation. They stopped the bleeding but unfortunately they weren’t able to completely remove the malformation. I woke up with a tube to drain fluid from the back of my skull.

Justin’s first brain surgery took 13 hours.
Justin’s first brain surgery took 13 hours.
Justin carries the scars of two brain surgeries
After undergoing two brain surgeries Justin feels almost invincible.
Stroke survivor Justin Occhionero
At 29 Justin is a passionate entrepreneur running his own content business.

Chapter 2 My first try at recovery

After the operation I went to stroke rehabilitation. I just tried to rush through the program. I had to learn to walk again, but I was determined to feel super-positive about the future. I said, my life is going to be awesome and I’m not going to let this get in my way. I was only in the rehab centre for about a week.

The hardest part was seeing everybody else really scared about what I was going through — like my mom, my relatives, my friends.

After I left rehab, I used a cane for a bit and my coordination was not good. I had some facial paralysis and numbness on my left side. But I didn’t let any of this stop me from jumping back into my old life. I went to orientation week at Concordia, where I was studying English literature. I partied like crazy, although I wasn’t drinking a lot.

I didn’t realize how much I was affected by the stroke. I tried to pretend my life was great, but deep down I was a mess mentally. I had some anxiety issues and eventually I gained about 80 pounds. After my girlfriend and I broke up, I finally asked for help through outpatient rehab. I started seeing a psychiatrist.

That was the beginning of a turnaround. I left the partying behind and started getting into shape. I started learning about nutrition.

Soon I was looking better and feeling better. Then, less than a year after the surgery, I noticed at the gym that my left hand was shaking. It turned out the malformation had partly grown back. 

I got through brain surgery once. But would I be lucky enough to survive it a second time?
Justin Occhionero - - Stroke survivor

Chapter 3 More surgery and a new start

The doctors told me they could operate again and probably get rid of it for good. “But it’s up to you.”

Brain surgery sucks. I was thinking, I got through it once, but will I be lucky enough to survive it a second time? After talking to my parents and my sister, I decided to do it, even though I was scared. My biggest fear was that there would be more damage to my brain — say I wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

The operation was successful. They got everything out — it was my mom who told me that as I was waking up from the anesthetic.

At rehab this time, I took it really seriously. After a week and a half they told me I could go home, but I said no. I ended up staying three weeks. Unlike the first time, I realized this was actually pretty cool. I got to work out every day and I got to realize how valuable it is being by yourself sometimes.

I was the youngest person there by a lot, but I enjoyed it. I’m a very extroverted person and I made a couple of old lady friends. We watched television together.

I went back to university and I was doing really well. But started to realize that I hated it; I knew I was more of an entrepreneur. Having gone through this experience with my two brain surgeries, I felt almost invincible. I could do anything!

So now at age 29, I am running my own business, creating content and podcasting on health and wellness topics. I try to be open to different ideas, maybe be a little controversial. I’m very passionate about what I do.

Some effects of the stroke are still with me. I walk like a drunk. I have a crooked smile. It takes me maybe 2 ½ minutes to tie my shoes. My left hand doesn’t have much of a grip. I’m OK with it not improving significantly.

To be honest, I would rather have come to this place without having a stroke. But looking back at how I was, I am so much better off right now.