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Tough year: Willpower strives to survive

Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. -- Victor Villerreal, 21st Force Support Squadron, Airman & Family Readiness Center Air Force Aid Society officer, poses for a family photo with his wife Nona Daugherty, 21 FSS, AFRC Personal & Family Life volunteer  program manager in 2013 while stationed at Royal Air Force Station, Mildenhall, England. Villerreal survived a massive stroke in 2016. (Courtesy photo)

ROYAL AIR FORCE STATION MILDENHALL, England - Victor Villerreal, 21st Force Support Squadron, Airman & Family Readiness Center Air Force Aid Society officer, poses for a family photo with his wife Nona Daugherty, 21 FSS, AFRC Personal & Family Life volunteer program manager in 2013 while stationed at Royal Air Force Station, Mildenhall, England. Villerreal survived a massive stroke in 2016. (Courtesy photo)

Victor Villerreal, 21st Force Support Squadron Air Force Aid Society officer, exercises on an arm bike July 2016 at St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital, after suffering a massive stroke. The arm bike helped to improve range of motion in his left arm and hand. (Courtesy photo)

SAN ANTONIO, TX., - Victor Villerreal, 21st Force Support Squadron Air Force Aid Society officer, exercises on an arm bike July 2016 at St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital, San Antonio, Tx., after suffering a massive stroke. The arm bike helped to improve range of motion in his left arm and hand. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- After driving to San Antonio, Texas in 2016 to visit family, Victor Villerreal, 21st Force Support Squadron, Airman & Family Readiness Center Air Force Aid Society officer, called home at 10 p.m. to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to wish his wife Nona Daugherty, 21 FSS, AFRC Personal & Family Life volunteer program manager, a happy birthday.

Two hours later, Villerreal suffered a massive stroke and was admitted to St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital.

Before this tragic attack, in November 2015 Villerreal was diagnosed with colon cancer and had approximately nine inches of his colon removed.

“My dad passed away from colon cancer,” said Daugherty. “And now the second man I loved is going to pass away from the same disease.”

“They did a biopsy on the tumor and it was found to be non-cancerous after all,” said Villerreal. “Which was a blessing.”

To make things worse, Villerreal was scheduled to have double hernia surgery but had to postpone it because the colon surgery took precedence. Following the colon operation, the hernia surgery would proceed.

“It was only two months after the first surgery that he went in for his double hernia operation,” said Daugherty

Villerreal hadn’t fully recovered from colon surgery when the doctors opened him up through the same cuts that were used for his colon operation.

Shortly after recovering from his second surgery, Villerreal drove to San Antonio where he experienced the stroke on June 29, 2016.

While sleeping, an artery had burst and blood was seeping into his brain. Daugherty said that, according to doctors, when this happens there’s minimal chance of survival.

Fortunately for Villerreal the artery began to clot and he woke up.

“I happened to wake up because my arm went to sleep,” Villerreal said.

He was able to get hold of his daughter, who called the hospital and he was transported within minutes. He spent the next week in the Intensive Care Unit.

While in the ICU his insurance provider claimed he had prior insurance and wouldn’t pay for him to be transferred into physical therapy. After trying to resolve these issues, an upset Daugherty contacted Debbie Schiess, wife of Col. Doug Schiess, 21st Space Wing commander, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

Mrs. Schiess contacted 21st FSS and 21st Medical Group to ask them to help and the team jumped in and worked with the hospital to fix the insurance issue.

Within hours, the company had approved his physical therapy. The next morning Villarreal began his rehabilitation.

“I couldn’t walk, write, get dressed or even tie my own shoes,” said Villerreal. “I couldn’t do anything.”

The doctors said that for every minute of a stroke 1.9 billion brain cells die, which explains why time is of the essence. The more brain cells killed, the more side effects. Villerreal estimates he lost 20 minute’s worth of cells. Everything that he had learned throughout his life had to be relearned.

Not deterred by everything that happened that year, Villerreal was bound and determined to recover. He refused anti-depressant medication and worked hard to get back to being normal.

“I told the doctors that I was going to walk out of there in a couple of weeks,” said Villerreal. “The doctors had already talked about putting me in a nursing home for extended rehabilitation.”

Villerreal would do all the rehab exercises he was instructed to do. What the rehabilitation staff didn’t know was that he would come back at night and do them again and again.

“It’s terrifying to see what your brain can do and after all these years you can’t even remember how to tie your shoes,” said Daugherty. “I would sit there and practice with him and he just couldn’t get it but we’re a team and we’ll get through it.”

Villerreal realized that he could only relearn so much and what he couldn’t learn he would just have to deal with. Doctors eventually told the couple that they had never seen anyone recover so quickly.

Villerreal continued rehab in a wheel chair only able to navigate with his feet. After the second day he came back with a walker. The third day, a cane.

Sadly, when they returned to Colorado Springs the first week of August to continue his therapy, he found out in September his mother was very sick. The following month Villerreal got on a plane for the first time since his stroke and was able to see his mother for a few days before she passed away.

To top things off, Villerreal was hospitalized again in December with side effects from colon surgery.

“10 percent of everybody who has a chunk of their colon removed have side effects from the reattachment,” said Daugherty.

A week before Christmas Villerreal and Daugherty returned home from a party when he doubled over in pain and was continuously vomiting. Daugherty took him to the emergency room and he was admitted within the hour.

Doctors put a tube in his nose and pushed it into his stomach to remove the residue from his colon. It was done without any pain medication and he could hardly talk, eat or drink anything.

“I was in god-awful pain with that,” said Villerreal. “I thought, what else was going to happen?”

He never had a follow up on the colon surgery but if he had he could have had possibly avoided being hospitalized again.

"We were supposed to have a follow up in June to see how the surgery went and if there were any polyps in his colon,” said Daugherty. “Then the stroke hit and everything went on the back burner.”

Six months after the heart attack Villerreal was back at work.

“My goal wasn’t just to get well enough,” Villerreal said. “My goal was that I’m going to get well and go back to work. Not going to work wasn’t even an option.”

Villarreal and Daugherty continue working together at 21 FSS. After the stroke Villerreal was unable to drive. One of the first things he did when he was finally healthy enough to operate a motor vehicle was to buy himself a new truck. It was his reward for surviving a horrendous 2016.

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