Brian Roberson remembers well the worst headache of his life.
"I was working at the library and when a student asked me to get a biology book, I fell," he said. "It was as if someone was beating my head with a hammer."
When he awoke in the hospital a day later, the 17-year-old Prairie View A&M University student learned that he had survived not one but two strokes, including one a week earlier when his speech became garbled. It was the first of what his family calls several "miracles" for the Dunbar High School grad.
But perhaps even more amazing than his recovery was Roberson's refusal to let anything -- including heart failure and a transplant -- derail his dream of earning a college degree.
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"No one thought he would accomplish that," said his mother, Yolanda Munson of Fort Worth. "We didn't think he'd be here."
Now 24, Roberson received his degree in history and secondary education from the University of Texas at Dallas a week ago Saturday. Despite frequent hospitalizations, Roberson said he never lost his drive to finish college.
"I always knew it would happen," he said.
Looking back, the first sign of medical trouble was a cough that just got worse and worse. Not until after the stroke did he learn that the nagging cough was caused by Coxsackie B, an airborne virus that he apparently picked up from a roommate, who had also been sick.
While his roommate recovered, Roberson was not so lucky. The virus caused myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that affects about 1 percent of the population, mostly middle-aged men. It can rapidly progress to heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. Damage to the heart can also cause a stroke, as it did in Roberson's case at the library in April 2006.
"When I woke up, I couldn't talk, couldn't sit up and couldn't see," he said. "My left side was paralyzed, and I couldn't hear out of my right ear."
Doctors told his parents to make funeral arrangements several times, but Roberson bounced back again and again.
He was still in the hospital seven months after the stroke when doctors told his family he needed a heart transplant -- quickly.
His heart was in such bad shape that he immediately went to the top of the transplant list. Though the average wait for a heart transplant is about six months, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a month later Roberson got the call that a donor heart was available.
Roberson got his on Christmas Day 2006.
"The next day I was walking," he said. "I was very ready to get back to a normal life."
But it would take months of physical, occupational and speech therapy before he could return to that life.
While his vision returned, learning to walk and talk again was tough.
"I still have trouble forming sentences," he said. "And sometimes I can't think of very simple words."
Even today, he has trouble with balance and faces daily challenges.
"We all walk heel-to-toe, but I have to think about it," he said. "It's not natural to me."
Two years passed before Roberson was able to return to school, this time at UT Dallas.
But medication to prevent organ rejection caused steroid-induced diabetes. Other drugs triggered seizures and had to be discontinued.
"I was sick every semester," he said.
Sometimes he would be hospitalized for a week or more and would still keep up with his classes, Munson said.
"He was always smart and he was always determined to be somebody, and when he got sick it just gave him even more drive," she said. "To think about what he's gone through and to see him come this far, there's no telling what he'll end up doing in life."
Roberson, who hopes to get a teaching job, said he always had faith he would achieve his goal.
"I just knew that graduation day would come," he said.
Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664