Before that day, Davis was a leader in his field, mapping distant galaxies to reveal what the universe was like billions of years ago. He won international recognition for his research and teaching at Princeton, Harvard, and, most recently, the University of California, Berkeley.
As a dedicated amateur athlete, he also outpaced many of his students on ski slopes and bike trails until one day he suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body.
Since then, he has used the same kind of focus and grit that made him a top scientist and sportsman to create a new and very different life for himself. But now he wonders whether it all had to happen the way it did.
Davis, 58, is a tall, lean man who looks fit and is even though he still has only limited use of his right leg and can't move his right arm or hand.
In an interview in his North Berkeley home, he says he realizes now that he had strong warnings of his impending stroke and that he may have missed a chance to avert it.
In the nine months before he suffered the "big one" in 2003, he experienced four mini-strokes or TIAs (transient ischemic attacks that temporarily block blood flow to the brain). During these episodes, his arm briefly felt "strange," and he temporarily lost vision in one eye.
"But each time I was OK again pretty quickly, and even though doctors did lots of tests to figure out why I had the TIAs, they didn't find any clues. In those days, I felt invincible, so I didn't push as hard as I should have for a complete diagnosis. In retrospect, I realize that was a really serious mistake."
Davis' conclusion is confirmed by Dr. Ralph Sacco, chair of the Advisory Board of the American Stroke Association and director of the Stroke and Critical Care Division of Columbia University Medical Center.
Sacco explains that doctors once made a sharp distinction between TIAs and major strokes, but they've now learned that transient episodes are the best indicator that a full-blown stroke is coming, sometimes within days.
So now they call both minor and major strokes "brain attacks" and treat them all with the same urgency as heart attacks.
"When a patient has a TIA," Sacco says, "we look hard for the cause," things such as a blocked artery, high blood pressure or cholesterol, heart valve problems or diabetes.
"Then we treat the problem aggressively with surgery or medication to try to stave off a more serious event and very often, we succeed."
Even though Davis got prompt medical attention after his TIAs, the blood test revealing a heart valve infection that caused his clot was overlooked until after disaster struck with full force.
His stroke hit early on the morning of June 27, 2003, when he was ready to leave for his office after riding an exercise bike. Suddenly, he fell to the floor of his kitchen and could not stand or speak. His son Adam, then 16, heard the crash, came running and called 9-1-1.
"I woke up the next day in the hospital," Davis remembers. "I felt like an insect in Franz Kafka's story 'Metamorphosis', pinned to a white board, unable to move anything on my right side.
"Why me? I asked myself over and over again. I thought a lot about whether I wanted to go on at all."
Davis pauses for a long moment and gazes away, remembering. But he's not a man to dwell on self-pity. He recalls that only a few days after the stroke, with constant encouragement and tough love from his wife, Nancy Turak, and his colleagues and friends, some of his optimism and determination came back. He made up his mind to plunge into treatment and try to resume his normal life within a few weeks.
That was not to be. After almost three months of working with doctors and speech, occupational and physical therapists, he was still in a wheelchair and had great difficulty speaking.
"They told me I might go on improving a little more, very gradually, for a year or so, and then progress would stop or slow to a trickle."
Davis finally found the courage to ask the question that mattered most to him: "Will I ever be able to ski again with my two boys?"
He got evasive, discouraging answers. As he relives that blow, his eyes fill with tears.
Snapping back to his "take charge" mode, he says, "That was not OK with me. I realized then that there wasn't anyone else who could fix me. It was up to me."
So Davis set out to fix himself to improve step by step. But he didn't do it alone. He used his warm personality and determination to hook others into his goal.
He hired a physical therapist who pushed him so hard that other professionals berated him for being too unrealistic and demanding. He found walking partners who would take ever more challenging strolls with a guy who had only one working leg. He got help learning to ride a recumbent tricycle with his "dead" side strapped in place. He signed up for lessons with a ski instructor who worked with disabled skiers and supported his goal of getting back on the slopes.
Davis also went to his office as much as he could and, with solid backing from his colleagues, remained involved in his team's research and painstakingly learned to use a voice activated computer.
Most of all, he soaked up the healing support that his wife, Nancy, offered without reserve. "If it hadn't been for Nancy, I'd be nowhere. I count on her for everything especially hugs." He smiles and looks toward his wife's home office where she's working on her computer.
Today, Davis is not yet back to leading cutting-edge research. But, against all odds, he is teaching astrophysics at UC Berkeley, and next January he'll receive one of science's top awards, the Heineman Prize, for his lifetime contributions to his field.
Best of all from his perspective, he is skiing again with his family, "on intermediate slopes" this former expert skier says, his handsome, angular face shining with pride.
Davis wants others to benefit from his odyssey and to avoid what he has suffered.
"I tell everyone to learn the symptoms of a TIA, and, if they have one, to be relentless about finding the cause. Don't be afraid to get second or third opinions. Be aggressive. Never give up until you find out what's going on. That could make all the difference."
Warning Signs of a Stroke
To prevent a stroke and to lessen brain damage, it's important to recognize the symptoms and to get to an emergency room immediately if they occur. The following symptoms may indicate a brain attack or a major stroke:
- Sudden numbness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause.
These symptoms can be tricky to spot or the sufferer may minimize or ignore them. If you think someone is having a stroke, here are a few things you can try to determine if that's what is happening:
- Ask the person to smile.
- Ask the person to raise both arms.
- Ask the person to say a simple sentence.
If the person has trouble doing any of these tasks, call 911 immediately and tell the dispatcher what's happening.
For more information, visit http://www.strokeassociation.org or call (888) 4stroke (478-7653).