Boston’s Go Red for Women chair shares stroke story to raise awareness

Christina Crowley had been looking forward to the trip for months.

New York City. Broadway. The theater.

As she drove from her Shrewsbury, Mass., home through Connecticut with her daughter, they sang show tunes, laughed and chatted excitedly about the day ahead.

The plan: Crowley’s sister and niece would meet them in New York. The group would catch a matinee of Wicked, followed by dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. The evening was expected to be the highlight of their visit – a showing of Dear Evan Hansen with Ben Platt in the title role.

Crowley was ready for a relaxing trip. As the leader of a global sales team at Dell Technologies, she was happy to spend time in her favorite city doing the thing she loves the most, attending Broadway shows.

That night, as Crowley settled into her seat at the Music Box Theatre, she turned to say something to her sister and found herself unable to speak. Crowley could hear the words she was trying to vocalize in her head, but she couldn’t say them.

After a moment of struggle, she was finally able to spit something out.

“Something’s weird. Something’s going on,” she said, trying not to panic. “I feel a little weird.”

At that moment, the theater lights went down. Ben Platt came on stage. The music started. Evan Hansen’s mother, Heidi, tried to connect with her anxiety-riddled son before confessing to the audience that she was “flying blind.”

“Where’s the map? I need a clue,” the actress sang, “cause the scary truth is, I’m flying blind…”

Crowley could relate – her own body felt foreign. As the actors performed, she briefly lost vision in her right eye. Her hand cramped. The side of her face felt heavy. At intermission, she described her symptoms. Her sister said they should immediately go to a hospital.

Crowley refused.

“No, no, we’re not going to leave because we spent so much money on these tickets, and this is the last chance to see Ben Platt and the original cast,” she said. “And there is no way I am missing the rest of the show and ruining everyone’s weekend.”

When Crowley did go to the hospital later that night, a series of tests revealed she’d had a stroke caused by a congenital heart defect. Her sister was right – Crowley should have gone straight to the emergency room.

“Looking back, I should have gotten immediate attention, gotten the medication they give you that can potentially stop the effects,” said Crowley in a recent interview. “I don’t know everything. I just know that. Go to the hospital.”

This Sept. 30 marked the three-year anniversary of Crowley’s stroke. She is sharing her story now so that other stroke patients do not make the same mistakes she did.

Crowley is also getting involved in the mission of the American Heart Association and its Go Red for Women campaign. She was recently announced as the 2021 chairperson for Go Red for Women in Boston.

The American Heart Association launched Go Red for Women in 2004 to raise awareness that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women. The movement aims to inform women about their risk for heart disease and stroke and give them the tools they need to lead a healthy life.

In the past three years, Crowley has worked hard to balance family, career, and her health. It hasn’t come easy.

Just two weeks after her stroke, she returned to work. For months, intense headaches made it difficult for her to get through the workday without taking constant breaks. At night, she needed to go to bed by 8 p.m. to function the next day.

Looking back, Crowley recognizes that she did too much too soon because she was nervous about appearing vulnerable.

“I’m probably much more vulnerable now, talking about it, than I ever was then,” she said. “I wouldn’t allow anyone to even think about (my stroke), but I needed help.”

She has a message for women who may be going through something similar: Listen to your body and advocate for your health. If something feels off, don’t push through it. Ask for help.

She also wants women to learn and share the stroke warning signs – face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty – and to understand the importance of calling 911 immediately if they are experiencing these symptoms.

Stroke accounts for about 1 of every 19 deaths in the U.S. and is a leading cause of serious long-term disability.

So, despite some lingering issues from her stroke – occasional numbness in her hand, difficulty remembering words, and minor face drooping – Crowley considers herself fortunate.

“Sometimes I can’t find the words, and sometimes my fingers don’t work as well as they used to,” she said, “but that’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”