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As A Stroke Survivor, I'm Glad To Be Alive…Literally. | PixSylated
Syl Arena Glad To Be Alive

Left: The day after brain surgery. Right: ten days later with my son, Tony.

Just a quick thanks to all who have offered up prayers and sent words of support over the past few months. I am now in that class of people who have walked away from a medical train wreck. Literally I am one in ten.

On November 10, 2015, I had a seizure at home which lead to a CT-scan at the local emergency room which lead to a 150-mile flight in a medical helicopter to a regional medical center in Santa Barbara (no, I did not have a window seat). At Cottage Hospital, the world-renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Alois Zauner, and his team injected me with radioactive dye and then drove a catheter from my groin into the center of my brain to seal a leaking aneurysm (a bubble on the side of an artery). Effectively, I underwent brain surgery without losing any of my trademark crazy, red locks.

Specifically, I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage; which is a type of stroke. I spent two weeks at Cottage, mostly in the neuro-ICU. As is typical after brain events, my body chemistry was whacked. My pituitary gland persistently instructed my kidneys to hold onto lethal amounts of sodium. My blood pressure, in response, stayed at stratospheric levels that causes strokes. Eventually the doctors and dedicated  NICU nurses at Cottage helped me find a path to recovery.

Although I did not learn the stats until I returned home, it was obvious during my mandated, daily walks that I was in far better shape than most of my neighbors in the stroke unit. Those stats continue to come back every day—my type of stroke kills half of its victims outright and leaves 80% of the survivors with lifelong disabilities. I am among the amazingly-lucky 10% who get back to their daily lives without significant, longterm deficits. Yes, through this experience, I now see life as a gift to be protected, treasured, and used wisely. That sentiment used to sound schmaltzy. Now I know its truth.

My advice to all, like the former me, who lead over-paced, stress-filled lives is to access what truly is important and then shift your priorities. Also, if you are told that you have high blood pressure, heed the warning. The meds that I now take for my blood pressure cost about $8.00/month (less than two trips to Starbucks). While the docs think that I was born with the aneurysm, a spike in my blood pressure likely caused the bleeding in my brain.

My view on the need for medical insurance has evolved. In two weeks at the hospital, my medical bills topped $400,000. My out-of-pocket expense was $250 thanks to the medical insurance that I have through my day job (teaching high school art + photography). A few years ago, when I was a globe-trotting workshop instructor, I did not have medical insurance. If you are still ducking out on medical insurance (despite Obamacare), at lease get a high-deductible policy in place. Most people can somehow survive a $5,000 or $10,000 hit (the amount expended before I was loaded onto the helicopter). Beyond that lies financial devastation.

I will be back out on the road soon. If you’re in the NYC-area, I’ll give a free (thanks Canon!) seminar in the B&H Event Space on Thursday, April 14. Check out the details here on B&H’s site. Mid-summer, I have a week-long workshop on flash photography at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Check out those details here on RMSP’s site.

Again, thanks to all who offered up prayers and sent words of support. Your energy truly made a difference. Onward!


43 Responses to As A Stroke Survivor, I’m Glad To Be Alive…Literally.

  1. Shane says:

    Welcome back, Syl! I’m so glad you are doing better.

  2. First of all I didn’t know, so your news is a shock. Second of all, thank goodness you have recovered. We don’t know each other personally, but we go back to me being an early adopter of your flash cable for Canon (you supplied me directly) I don’t think a week goes by without me or someone in our studio referring to your books, and I recommend them to every young photographer I meet, Canonista or not. So I hope you continue to recover and you are soon back in harness, but,please, take things a bit easier this time!

  3. Venkat Sundaram says:

    Great news, Syl. Good to have you back. See you at B&H.

  4. We are so glad you are still with us! If you every come to the UK, I will gladly attend any workshop you offer!

  5. John says:

    Oh dear, so sad to hear about your ordeal, Syl, but glad you’re back and fighting. All the best!

  6. Jim Hoffman says:

    Syl, I had no idea you were going through all this! I am so glad to hear that my favorite photography teacher and inspiration is doing okay after this ordeal. Yes, we all need to take a look at our lives and focus on what really matters. When I bought my first digital camera, several years before I took your seminar in Houston, it was as a result of that kind of reevaluation. After completing cancer treatment, I realized that I had no hobbies, but if always wanted to shoot. Now, I do, and enjoy reading masters like you for inspiration. And now you provide even more!
    I can’t wait until you come to Houston again! My wife and I loved dinner with you the last time and would love to do that again.

  7. Syl,
    I had not heard about your stroke. I was wondering why you were keeping such a low profile, as I saw no no tweets or web posts. Now I know and I see why.

    I’m glad to hear you are on the mend and hope to catch you sometime at a workshop or photo event soon.

    Take care of yourself!

  8. Bill Woodward says:

    Glad to hear you’re OK. My 76-year-old Dad had a subarachnoid hemorrhage in November as well. He also survived, but is having a lot of memory issues as he recovers. We’re very lucky.

    – Bill

  9. Rex Gigout says:

    Syl, it is an answered prayer to see you posting this! (I sent you an e-mail through OCF Gear, the only way I could quickly find to communicate, when I learned of your situation.)

    Be safe and well!

    Rex Gigout

  10. Donald Boys says:

    Great news. Glad to hear you’re on the mend.

  11. mark killeen says:

    Syl…first I heard of this via a post from Patty Senseman. I am so sorry for your trouble and thank god all is a ok. At least as a ok as possible. I wish you all the best!

  12. You might be in the lucky 10% medically, but you are a 1% human… meaning, there is nobody else like you. Your big brain and generous spirit has given so much to us that follow you and have been taught by you. I was saddened to hear about your brush with fate months ago, so this recovery news is awesome! Keep on that road to recovery!… plus, I’m glad they did not shave your trademark locks.

  13. Phew! Good to hear you survived this fairly intact! As you mentioned, this could so easily have swayed the other way.

    All the best on your road to full recovery.

  14. Neil Shea says:

    Thank god you’re a survivor, great story, and great advice. My father also survived a subarachnoid aneurysm bleed, doing well after a long rehab. I’m here in Monterey, maybe our paths will cross again.

  15. Nicolas says:

    Happy for you, happy for your family. Happy for me, I have learned a lot reading you, and still have so much to learn. HAPPY !

  16. Hicks Milner says:

    SYL, I had no news of this but so glad you are doing well.
    All the best to you,

  17. ** sending positive vibes & virtual hugs **

    So glad you’re on the path to a swift recovery, Syl. Take it easy & be strong and well.

    All the best from the other side of the planet 🙂


  18. Skai says:

    I’m glad you are still with us, bro.

  19. Ian, Nottingham, UK says:

    I am one of many followers of your flash techniques and have many of your books, if not all. Very good news to hear are back on your feet. Best wishes for the future.
    Kind regards. Ian

  20. Steve Simon says:

    OMG Syl, this explains the low profile these past few months…so happy you’re doing great. Your story in this blog post is so powerful and important. Thank you for the reminder on what really is important…it’s a gift. Hope to see you soon!

  21. Anselm says:

    I have no words! You are a miracle indeed and I am so happy for you and your family.

  22. Jen says:

    So glad you’re in the 10%!

  23. Eric Stoner says:

    Very happy to see you doing so well. You had all of us very worried!
    See you next week at B&H Syl!
    Eric Stoner
    Canon USA

  24. Ramin Ras. says:

    Dear Syl,I was also unaware like your other fans.Now I thank god that you are well and back.Sure you can go on as a good teacher .
    ( Iran)

  25. Robin says:

    Glad you’re back Syl.

  26. Chris Justice says:

    We are blessed to still have you Syl! Stay well!

  27. Ricky Sharp says:


    Very glad you were able to get through such a scary situation. God bless.


  28. Doug Mulcahy says:

    Great to hear that you’re going to be okay! I’m a big fan of your books and videos.

  29. Joe says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us Syl.A lot of people would have been devastated if it had went the other way.A lot of us love you and your red hair mate. Here’s to a quick and fulfilled recovery.

  30. Mark Wilder says:

    Wow! Get well soon! I’m so glad you’re going to be ok!

  31. Nigel Cobb says:

    When you disappeared from all your e communication, I thought it was very strange,considering your usual profile!

    As a stroke survivor myself I know how hard the last few months have been for you, glad to see you are fighting back!

    Best wishes from Modbury, Devon, UK

  32. Cy Stanton says:

    Syl, I was enjoying your book, Speedliters Handbook, being that I just purchased a pair of 600EX-RTs. I came to your blog to ask if something you stated in your book might be a typo. Specifically in the section titled “My Workflow: Using One Speedlight in Manual Mode” you have this: 

    “Subject still: I will shoot my camera in Manual (M) because I want to control depth of field with the aperture and ambient (background) light with the shutter. I start with my camera in Manual 90% of the time. Aperture Priority (Av) is also an option as it allows control of depth of field via aperture—with FEC as the means of adjusting how the ambient light is captured.”

    Did you mean with Shutter Speed to adjust ambient light? I thought I was understanding the relationships between aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and flash power on exposure but this one confused me. Thought I’d mention in case it was just a typo.

    By the way, prayers to you for a speedy recovery!

  33. David King says:

    Mr Arena,

    We have never met, I have watched your B&H seminars multiple times and your handbook would be one of my most thumbed books…if it wasn’t an eBook edition! I came to this site after just ordering the updated version and another one of your books.

    I have lost friends and family to strokes and am sincerely happy for you and your family to hear that you are on the road to a full recovery.

    Be well.

  34. Case says:

    Isn’t it something? How we start to value life at the moment we almost lost it? We could have great conversation on that.

    Syl, may God bless you and continue to heal you. I do very much enjoy your video classes and your publications as they are fun to watch and read, but most of all….. I’ve been and still am learning tons.

    Thank you and wishing you speedy recovery.

  35. Cindy Cannon says:

    I’m a big fan. Been wondering why I haven’t heard/seen much of you lately. Being a critical care RN in a stroke certified hospital in Monterey,CA (actually kind of in your neck of the woods, Syl)I can say, yes, you are indeed a lucky man and we are blessed to have you back. Can’t wait for a workshop in your home town when you are feeling up to it. Take care of yourself, Cindy Cannon

  36. Joe Sharp says:

    I’m glad you survived, Syl. You have accomplished a lot in your life as a photographer and as an educator and I am glad to have been one of your students. Thank you and best wishes for more good years.

  37. Philip V. Tamburello says:

    Syl, I have two of your books. They are a great resource but you are the best resource. I hope your recovery continues unabated. I am happy for you and your family.

  38. Rob Springston says:

    It’s been awhile since I made a visit to your websit and just saw the news. Do retro prayers count? I’ll just reserve them for continued progress, strength, and health for you and your family. On a selfish note,your recovery means I still have a chance to catch one of your classes or lectures sometime in the future. You inspire on many levels. Thanks for all you do!

  39. Mark says:

    Syl, Godspeed on the road to a full and complete recovery. You are loved by many. Here’s to decades of good health.

  40. Al Stegmeyer says:

    Glad you made it. Glad your back. A year ago I dislocated my knee. Three months later they removed my leg above the knee. It was a long time in the hospital and rehab. A few days were touch and go. One night the white lite. Yes my priorities have changed. I measure my time in heartbeats or seconds at a time, not days, months or years. I don’t tolerate none-sense while counting the heartbeats of life. Enjoy the day unless you have other plans.

  41. jim atyeo says:

    I am so happy that you were one of the lucky ones. So very glad you are back in action without any major side effects. You are one of the fun ones out there and an original thinker, we need that in our field so much.
    Thanks to all the great medical staff you had!

  42. Keri says:

    Hi Syl
    I had no idea you went through all of this. So glad to read of your successful recovery. Best to you and your family. Thank you for You, your books and all of the wonderful information you provide.

  43. Zol Straub says:

    Hi Syl, all the best from down under (albeit it a bit belated). Have learned a lot from you over the years and am grateful to you for having shared your knowledge. Hope that your recovery is complete and look forward to seeing more of your trade mark carrot top.


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