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Ben Schmitt

Stroke survivor, seeming 'person of model health,' offers lessons

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, July 4, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Darren Nichols, stroke survivor, of Southfield, Michigan.
Darren Nichols, stroke survivor, of Southfield, Michigan.
Darren Nichols, stroke survivor, of Southfield, Michigan.
Darren Nichols, stroke survivor, of Southfield, Michigan.

Darren Nichols views himself as a prime example that a stroke can seize almost anyone not in control of their diet and blood pressure.

He's never weighed more than 160 pounds, and before Sept. 25, 2014, he lived a reasonably active, athletic life. Most knew him as a laid-back family man with a witty sense of humor.

“Some perceived me as a person of model health,” Nichols says.

Those perceptions changed in public fashion when Nichols, then a reporter for The Detroit News, suffered a massive stroke in front of news colleagues in City Hall. He remembers his right leg giving out and the right side of his 6-foot frame going numb before a colleague from a competing newspaper called 911.

He woke in Detroit Receiving Hospital two hours later to a surreal scenario: TV news was reporting the incident.

Doctors told him his blood pressure, which had always bordered on risky, spiked and caused the stroke.

Only 43 years old, Nichols felt grateful to be alive. He knew he had a long recovery. And during those solitary moments lying in the hospital bed, he found comfort in music that he played constantly on his iPad. He'd listen to gospel to replace church along with R&B and hip-hop.

He promised himself to live healthier, work hard in his rehab and find a way to control internal stress. Months later, he became an ambassador for the American Stroke Association.

I competed against Nichols when I worked for the Detroit Free Press, from 1999 to 2010, and we became friends.

We spoke recently after he responded to a tweet I posted about the Food and Drug Administration's asking the food industry to cut back on the amount of sodium added to some foods. He told me he had lectured about unhealthy amounts of sodium in the diet.

The average American consumes around 3,400 mg of sodium daily, with 75 percent coming from processed and restaurant foods. The FDA wants Americans to reduce daily intake to about 2,300 mg.

Nichols calculated his sodium intake the day before his stroke: he ate two McDonald's chicken sandwiches for lunch and a frozen lasagna meal for dinner. He estimated that he consumed 8,300 mg of sodium during that day.

“As a reporter, you know how there's never time to eat lunch — you just grab something quickly,” he said. “I was living my life that way. I ate a lot of fast food.”

Metabolism apparently kept him slim, but the silent killer of high blood pressure was secretly building inside. Before the stroke, Nichols tried to monitor his blood pressure at home because of his borderline dangerous readings and genetic predisposition to hypertension.

“I probably hadn't checked it in three months,” he told me. “And I paid for it.”

Nearly two years later, Nichols, now 45, still hasn't regained full mobility on his right side. He's added a twist to his recovery: He now posts dance videos on YouTube to document his progress. A physical therapist recommended he record himself when Nichols jokingly lamented about his newfound lack of rhythm.

When Nichols, a father of 8-year-old twins, lectures about his condition, he channels Motown's Temptations in his opening remarks.

“It was the 25th of September. A day I'll always remember. 'Cause that was the day I almost died.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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