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The role of hockey in Riley Dunda's recovery 0:40

Riley Dunda of Hamilton had a lot to celebrate on his 19th birthday Wednesday, after suffering a major stroke five weeks ago.

A left-winger with the Junior A Hamilton Red Wings, he and his family are celebrating his remarkable, and still ongoing, recovery from the stroke. Confined to a bed in the first days after a clot interrupted blood flow to his brain, Dunda is now walking on his own and speaking clearly again — defying doctors’ expectations and emerging as a social media celebrity along the way.

Accustomed to the rigours of competitive hockey, Dunda says the actual physical work he puts in daily at Hamilton Health Sciences’ Regional Rehabilitation Centre “hasn’t been that challenging.”

However, he described the slow process of retraining his body to do what he commands as “frustrating.”

Riley Dunda rehabilitation in pool

Part of Dunda's rehabilitation involves strength and mobility training in a pool. (Courtesy of Richard Dunda)

“Sometimes you can’t get your foot to go, or your arm to go, but whatever,” he told CBC Hamilton. “You just go to the next thing … and eventually you get it. You feel a sense of pride.”

Inundated over the last month with emails and calls from friends and family asking about how his son is doing, Dunda’s father Richard took to Facebook and Twitter to keep supporters informed. As a result of the online chatter, the teen's stroke has drawn attention outside of Hamilton's hockey community.

Fraternity of hockey

Well-wishers on Twitter send words of encouragement, appending their tweets with the hashtag #FightRileyFight.

The social media chronicle of his struggle and progress has come to attention of players in the NHL, with some NHLers, including members of Dunda’s favourite NHL team, the Los Angeles Kings, sending messages of support to the Grimsby teen — a development he referred to, approvingly, as “sick.”

“It’s been a miracle,” said his father. “Riley’s community — both his own constituency of friends, his broader constituency of hockey players, and then this worldwide community of hockey players — it’s just a fraternity. And they have been there to support him — directly in this hospital room and on social media.”

Dunda, who is six feet tall and 181 lbs., collapsed at his family’s home in Grimsby on May 4. Mother Linda, a former nurse, darted to the living room and found her son convulsing. She immediately called 911.

“She could recognize right away that he was a having a stroke or at least a major seizure,” said the teen's father.

After being rushed to West Lincoln Memorial Hospital, Dunda was taken to Hamilton General Hospital. There, a team of surgeons conducted a highly delicate procedure, using catheters and wires to remove the clot that caused the stroke. 

“‘Time is brain’ is the mantra that we use for stroke treatment,” said Dr. Wieslaw Oczkowski, a neurologist at Hamilton Health Sciences. “Everything was done at super fast speed to save as much of his brain as possible.”

The operation was a success — helped in part by Linda Dunda’s quick response and the resiliency of her son’s young body — but Riley was left temporarily immobile.

'No upper limit'

In the weeks since, Dunda has “broken all the rules in terms of stroke recovery,” said Oczkowski. “He has developed his own recovery curve in terms of being virtually dependent when he came in with the stroke, to being completely independent at the moment.”

He walks with a limp, his right arm has limited mobility and he speaks with a slight slur. But because of the teen’s ferocious determination, his physical fitness and the relative adaptability of his young brain, there is “no upper limit” to his recovery potential, Oczkowski said.

Giving back

Dunda credits his family, girlfriend Kristy Bader and the support of his friends for keeping his spirits high. His goal is to play hockey next season.

The Dundas are looking to use their newfound attention to give back to Hamilton Health Sciences. On Wednesday, which was Riley’s 19th birthday, the family launched a social media campaign to raise $150,000 for the Hamilton General Hospital Foundation, and in particular, the organization’s stroke recovery program.

Dunda's parents and girlfi

Richard and Linda Dunda, Riley's parents, pose with Kristy Bader, his girlfriend, outside Hamilton Health Sciences' Regional Rehabilitation Centre. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

“Hamilton General, through [the Regional Rehabilitation Centre], has been absolutely wonderful,” Richard Dunda said. “The level of care, the speed — there’s a lot of small miracles that have happened along the way.”

The family is hoping Riley's story will lead to a windfall for the stroke clinic that has guided his improbable recovery. 

“They’re just always ready, and they deserve more funds to do their work," he said.

To visit the Dunda's Hamilton Health Sciences donation page, go to Hamiltonhealth.ca/FightRileyFight