Dick Wagner had enjoyed a successful career playing lead guitar for artists like Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and KISS before he had a stroke and a heart attack in 2007.
"I woke up from a coma after two weeks with a paralyzed left arm," said the 70-year-old rocker. "My profession as a guitarist, I thought, was over."
Wagner was responsible for co-writing many of Cooper's best-known songs, including the 1975 hit "Welcome to My Nightmare." But the guitarist's own personal horror show had just begun. He worked hard at rehabilitation, but new symptoms began to appear: mental fuzziness and an odd gait.
"I couldn't turn to the left as I walked, only to the right, and I would do a spiral and fall," he said. "I fell completely flat on my face in the driveway on the concrete. I didn't know what had happened to me."
Another fall by his swimming pool precipitated a blood clot and surgery. Wagner was convinced his career was over.
But in 2011, Wagner was diagnosed with NPH, or normal pressure hydrocephalus, a condition caused by a build-up of spinal fluid in the brain, which puts pressure on nerves that control the legs, bladder and cognitive function.
Doctors at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix surgically placed a shunt in his head to redirect the fluid through a tube under the skin to his abdominal cavity. A small amount is drained every day and will be for the rest of his life.
Now, Wagner is back on tour with a band in Denmark.
"I am like a new man almost overnight," he said. "For five years, I couldn't even pick up a guitar -- I didn't have the strength or the coordination."
NPH typically strikes after the age of 55 and often mimics the dementia of Alzheimer's and the impaired motor skills of Parkinson's disease. An estimated 5 percent of all dementia patients actually have NPH, which is correctable, according to Dr. Joseph M. Zabramski, the neurosurgeon who placed Wagner's shunt at Barrow.
In Wagner's case, it wasn't the initial stroke that deprived him of his musical ability, but NPH, which took away his coordination and timing.
"The stroke he suffered usually produces relatively mild deficits, and over time patients are able to resume most normal activities," Zabramski said. "Dick cannot raise his left arm as well as he used to, but his fine motor function in his left hand is excellent.
"Once we had the shunt in place I saw the improvements," added the doctor. "Gradually, much to my pleasure, the old Dick Wagner returned."
"I am getting my timing back almost back to normal," Wagner said. "It made a huge complete turnaround of my life."
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