When 56-year-old Stephan Butler experienced a series of mini-strokes in May 2010, he sought help from a doctor he had formerly coached on the football field. Having coached this doctor as a high school student in the 1990s, Butler knew losing wasn’t part of the young man’s game plan.
Butler figured not much had changed in the years since Steven Kosa graduated from high school, went on to medical school and started practicing neurology. That, and the fact that he knew the doctor had integrity, honesty and a strong penchant for winning were reasons enough to compel Butler to pick up the phone and call Steven Kosa, MD, of Research Neurology Associates. Dr. Kosa was the former Liberty High School student who, at 16 years old, made a key tackle that helped his team win the 1993 Missouri High School sectional championship game.
For Butler, who retired from coaching in 2008, coaching high school football represented a powerful personal connection that extended way beyond the game.
“Coaching wasn’t just teaching kids to block and tackle,” says Butler, whose 31-year career with Liberty High School included stints as a teacher, athletic director and football coach. “Coaching is about relationship-building. You learn to help one another, look someone in the eye and tell them they need to pick it up or that they’ve done a good job.”
Butler says the essence of his coaching philosophy was to prepare kids for what was ahead of them in the real world.
So when the coach and the player met again—this time in a life-threatening situation—it was as patient and doctor. Butler lost sight in his right eye playing the ninth hole during a May 7 golf game. He regained his vision by the time he reached the 10th tee and visited the eye doctor that afternoon.
“I’m a runner, have never smoked and eat a healthy diet,” says Butler. “The doctor looked at my eye and said because I didn’t have paralysis or speech loss I probably had an eye flutter.’’
Several weeks later on May 22, Butler lost his balance after getting out of a chair. He and a friend who was with him at the time, Sandy Dawson, knew something was wrong.
“My equilibrium was totally off,” recalls Butler, who decided to call Dr. Kosa after Dawson expressed concern.
Butler shared his symptoms with Dr. Kosa; the doctor asked him to come to the office for an examination. The former coach took orders from his former student and on May 25 went to Research Medical Center’s TIA Clinic, which is dedicated to offering quality care to patients at risk of suffering a stroke.
“I didn’t leave that day,” says Butler. “They admitted me to Research where Dr. Edward Higgins of Kansas City Vascular and General Surgery operated on me the next day. I was 95 percent blocked on my right carotid artery.”
Butler praises Dr. Kosa’s quick thinking—something the doctor demonstrated during that memorable football game years ago—with saving his quality of life.
“I think I would have survived but I’m not sure I would be active today,” says Butler, whose only remaining effect from the strokes is a weakness on his left side. “I run, I golf, I do everything I did before the stroke. I even went hiking in Colorado three weeks after surgery.”
When Butler emerged from recovery following the operation, he thanked Dr. Kosa for his work. “Steve said to me, ‘Coach, I’m just repaying you for the lessons you taught me,’” says Butler.
In the game of life, Butler gave Dr. Kosa his trust and confidence. The neurologist reciprocated by giving his former coach and mentor something priceless.
“A do-over,” says Butler.