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In 31 years, this NC police chief never called in sick. Then he had a massive stroke.

Don Roper had just closed his notebook on the conference table in front of him when he realized he couldn’t speak.

The police chief was wrapping up a Monday afternoon command staff meeting with two captains and the deputy chief inside the Mt. Holly Police Department.

Then — suddenly, he says — “I realized I felt strange.”

“I felt a little off balanced.”

Chief Roper couldn’t move his right hand.

Later, he’d learn, his co-workers saw the right side of his face drooping.

These are the tell-tale signs of a stroke.

“I could hear the conversation. I couldn’t talk. Really pretty much everything they were saying is what I’d want them to do,” Roper said.

The group of police officers moved swiftly to get Roper to a hospital.

“He was having a very disabling stroke,” said Dr. Jerry Martin of Carolinas Medical Center/Atrium Health, a neurologist who treated Roper during his illness.

Roper arrived at the emergency room in the back of a patrol car. A Mt. Holly firefighter had been in the backseat with Roper during the 18-mile drive, checking his vital signs and relaying that information ahead to the hospital.

Quick action from his co-workers gave this police chief the chance for what medical professionals say is the ultimate life-saving measure for a stroke patient: the “clot-buster” drug.

“Chief Roper had a good chance of recovery. Getting him here in a timely manner was very important,” Martin said.

Inside the emergency room at the Charlotte hospital, doctors administered what’s clinically known as TPA, a thrombolytic medicine that breaks up blood clots. The “clot-buster” drug is given through an IV over an hour’s time. It can save lives — but only if a patient receives the drug within 4.5 hours of the first stroke symptom.

On Aug. 13, time was on the chief’s side.

Within a few hours of getting TPA, 52-year-old Roper was on his way to recovery.

“It allows me to return to my wife, return to my son, and spend time with my family,” he said.

“Every day is another day I could have possibly not had.”

chief roper dr martin.jpg
Police Chief Don Roper of Mt. Holly, N.C., thanks Dr. Jerry Martin of Carolinas Medical Center/Atrium Health in Charlotte. Roper had a massive stroke on the job. Martin, a neurologist, helped save his life. Kevin McCarthy Atrium Health/Carolinas Medical Center

For the last three weeks, he’s been taking it easy. Nurses and therapists at Atrium have helped him through physical therapy and speech rehabilitation.

Roper’s stroke was caused by a blood clot that traveled from his heart to his brain. The underlying cause, doctors discovered, was an irregular heart beat.

In his 31-year career in law enforcement, Roper had never taken a sick day — until he had a stroke.

Tuesday was his first day back at work.

“I’m looking at things a little bit differently,” he said.

Stress is a part of life, he said, but, these days, he’s taking more things in stride.

He asks himself more often whether life’s everyday stressors are really all that bad.

“At the end of the day, is it really so bad or so important that you let it cause so much stress that you don’t enjoy time with your friends or time with your family ... Most things aren’t.”

On Wednesday, Roper returned to Carolinas Medical Center to visit the doctors, nurses and others who saved his life.

Roper said: “I just can’t say thank you enough.”

Douglas: 704-358-5078; @ADouglasNews
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