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Kirk Douglas became an unlikely spokesman for stroke awareness

"I am lucky, although my speech is still impaired, I suffer no paralysis and I didn't die," Douglas said of his stroke. "I have begun to appreciate the gift of life."
Image: Actor Kirk Douglas, 90, is photographed during an interview about his life, film career and his new book \"Let's Face It,\" at his home in Beverly Hills, California
Kirk Douglas laughs during an interview at his home in Beverly Hills, California, in 2007. He died Wednesday at age 103.Fred Prouser / Reuters file

Three years ago, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas said he never expected to reach 100 years old. On Wednesday, he died at 103.

In addition to starring in iconic roles in movies like "Spartacus" and "Lust for Life," the beloved leading man was known for something else entirely: having survived a stroke.

He fought his way back from the experience in 1996 and wrote about it in his memoir, "My Stroke of Luck." The tongue-in-cheek title captured Douglas' humor and optimism as he adapted to a new reality.

"After a stroke, I made two films with impaired speech," Douglas wrote. "Now I am waiting for another part to play before the sun sinks below the horizon. You can't stop an actor."

Douglas recalled the stroke's happening suddenly while he was enjoying a manicure in his home. It felt as if a pointed object drew a line from his right temple down to his cheek. When he tried to describe the strange sensation, gibberish came out. He could not speak.

Doctors reassured Douglas that the stroke was minor, yet the recovery process felt arduous. He was devastated and angry, wondering why he, an on-screen tough guy, had been sidelined so unceremoniously. After all, he had survived a helicopter crash several years earlier.

More than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke every year, killing 140,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 87 percent of strokes are caused when blood flow to the brain is blocked.

"People are having the same amount of strokes, but they tend to survive them better," said Dr. Karol Watson, a professor of medicine and cardiology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

Douglas struggled with regaining his verbal communication. He dreaded the daily speech therapy sessions necessary to relearn what had once came so easily — using his tongue and lips, forming words using the combination of the two. In the end, however, he called the experience "a blessing in disguise."

"I am lucky, although my speech is still impaired, I suffer no paralysis and I didn't die," he said in a 2007 interview with the National Institutes of Health magazine NIH MedLine Plus. "I have begun to appreciate the gift of life."

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Douglas went on to continue acting and to speak openly not just about his stroke but his struggles with speech impairment, also known as aphasia.

"We our particularly grateful for his honesty and openness about his experience dealing with the challenges of aphasia after a stroke," said Chad Ruble, of the National Aphasia Association. "That he was willing to share his story continues to be a tremendous comfort to the 2 million-plus people in this country who continue to deal with the challenges of aphasia."

In the years since his recovery, doctors have made huge strides in understanding and treating strokes. That includes developing an emergency treatment that must be administered within 4½ hours of having a stroke. The drug, alteplase, is injected directly into a vein to dissolve the clot. It is considered "the gold standard" for emergency treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Treatment has evolved drastically," Watson said, but she cautioned that even a minor stroke can have debilitating consequences.

"It doesn't have to be a huge stroke. Even a small stroke in a vulnerable part in the brain" can lead to something serious, she said.

The best way to prevent a stroke is to know the risk factors, Watson added. Those include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and inactivity.

In 1991, Douglas narrowly escaped death when the helicopter in which he was a passenger collided with a small plane above the airport in Santa Paula, California. Two people were killed.