Rugby player recovers from stroke at Kaiser Vallejo – Times-Herald

By Times-Herald staff writer Daniel Egitto

Tyson Wasser had just come out of a scrum in a club rugby match April 30 when everything “just became foggy.”

“I just could tell it was really not something I had felt before,” the 17-year-old Granite Bay Rugby player said on Wednesday.

As Wasser stumbled off the field to his coach, Kaiser Permanente nurse Heather Stark sprang into action. While Stark’s husband called 911, she and another nurse rushed to Wasser and found him showing symptoms of a stroke.

A blood clot had caused Wasser to lose almost all motor function on the left half of his body, leaving the burly rugby player wheelchair bound. Over several intense weeks, Wasser and Kaiser Permanente Vallejo staff have been working closely together to help the tenacious teenager recover.

Between Kaiser staff’s medical expertise and Wasser’s will to improve, Wasser now hopes to walk at his graduation ceremony in June – and someday, perhaps, even to play rugby again.

“I know that we did everything we needed to get him,” Stark said. “And then, it really is a matter of his fighting spirit and prayers.”

‘Connecting the dots’

Wasser’s face was fierce with concentration Wednesday morning as staff guided him through walking exercises at Kaiser. Allison Stevenson, Wasser’s physical therapist, said the 17-year-old regularly works up a sweat during the three hours of guided exercise he now receives every day. Since a portion of Wasser’s brain died in his stroke, Stevenson said his brain has been having to rewire itself to regain function.

The best way to help with that, Stevenson said, is to “get every muscle in his body to work as hard as possible.”

“He works extremely hard,” Stevenson said. “He’s very dedicated. We offer people breaks when they appear to be needing a break, and he will refuse it.”

Tyson Wasser smiles after jogging a few steps during rehabilitation at the Vallejo Kaiser Rehabilitation Center. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
Tyson Wasser smiles after jogging a few steps during rehabilitation at the Vallejo Kaiser Rehabilitation Center. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Although Wasser remains physically fit, he said getting any movement in some parts of his body now takes a huge amount of effort. Just to twitch a finger in his left arm, Wasser said, he has to imagine himself throwing something. “It feels like I’m connecting the dots in my head … just to move it a little bit,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Stevenson said her patient’s abilities have improved by leaps and bounds. For the first time Wednesday, she had the teen walk up a flight of stairs two steps at a time – a task she described as “ridiculously hard and a pretty rare activity to do here.”

The physical therapist said recovering from a stroke is often a lifelong process. Wasser’s youth and determination, however, are speeding up his progress considerably.

Stevenson said the teenager reminds her of why she does this work.

“Every day you see improvements,” she said. “Every day you see change. You get to help people at the most vulnerable time of their life, usually, and everyone is grateful. That’s the beauty of this job.”

Grateful for help

Wasser is on track to go home this weekend. Although he said the first thing he wants to do is “lay in bed and relax,” he also plans to continue pushing himself to recover.

The rugby player said many of his teammates have made the trip to visit him in Vallejo, and his team is currently in Indiana for a national championship. Wasser said he appreciates them as well as the staff at Kaiser.

“They work me out pretty good in here,” he said. “I’m pretty tired by the end of the day.” Wasser wants to return to Vallejo once he’s fully healed to thank Stevenson and other staff members, who he said are “kind of like coaches.”

The teen said the past few weeks have been difficult and sometimes frustrating. He said one of the worst experiences was waking up in the morning and being unable to walk or move his arm.

Still, Wasser said he reminds himself, “people have had it worse than I have it.”

He’s particularly grateful to Stark, the nurse who recognized stroke symptoms at his last rugby game. On the phone with Stark on Wednesday, Wasser credited her with “basically saving my life.”

“I just want to say thank you,” he told the nurse. “Thank you so much.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up for Wasser at

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