Penguins defenseman Kris Letang isn’t a typical athlete. He’s young, entering the prime of his playing career at 26 years old. He’s arguably the best-conditioned player on the team. In short, he’s the prototypical specimen of a well-trained athlete.
So when Letang found out that he suffered a stroke, it was shocking news.
“It’s tough to believe. When I found out I didn’t really believe it,” Letang said.
The day was Jan. 29. That morning Letang and his mother were leaving for the airport to fly to Los Angeles as part of the Penguins first-ever Mom’s Trip when the unthinkable happened.
“I woke up and my wife found me on the ground,” Letang said. “The day before I was totally fine. I was practicing. I woke up that morning not expecting that would happen. I drove to the airport with my mom and thought it would clear up, but it never did.”
A few days later doctors diagnosed the stroke.
“I have some good days, bad days. I’m going day by day to get to 100 percent,” Letang said. “It’s not as bad as when it happened. There are symptoms. Some days are stronger symptoms than others.”
Letang is working on returning to the ice for the Penguins. Luckily, because of his age there is a high chance that he will return to complete normalcy. But there is no timetable for Letang’s possible return. For now, he is taking the recovery day-by-day.
“I always want to get back and play games,” he said. “Right now I’d like to step on the ice and play. There are many things that hold me from doing that.
“If I have a chance to come back this year and play it’s going to be great. To be around the team, around the rink, working out, I’m trying to take steps to get closer to coming back.”
Letang will be on blood thinners for a six-week period and has begun light exercises. After the six weeks is up, doctors will re-evaluate his progress.
“For now I’ll stay on blood thinners,” Letang said. “In two, three weeks I’m meeting them again. I’ll go through a battery of tests. We’ll make a decision from there.”
But even more so than the physical recovery for Letang, there is the mental recovery.
“The symptoms I’m experiencing are from the stroke, the damage and what it did to my brain,” Letang said. “For now it’s just worrying about my head.”
Doctors theorized that a hole in the wall of Letang’s heart was the possible cause of the stroke. Everyone is born with this defect, but the hole closes up in most people.
However, that isn’t where the doctors and Letang are focusing.
“The hole in the heart may have been the cause, but they’re not 100-percent sure,” said Letang, who has no plans yet to have the hole closed. “The hole in the heart is not a problem. I’ve been living with it for 26 years and never had a problem with that conditioning-wise.”
Hockey aside, the main concern for Letang, his family and the Penguins is for Letang’s overall health.
“The most difficult thing was my family,” Letang said. “My family is really worried. That was difficult to manage, when you see your mom crying or your wife. It’s always a tough thing to handle.
“You think about if you’re going to be all right, if I’ll have a chance to play hockey again. I was surrounded by great doctors. They took great care of me. All my questions were answered. I feel I’m making progress.”