Fitness buff hadn’t expected to have a stroke

Fitness buff hadn’t expected to have a stroke

Jennifer DeFazio, right, pictured here with her son Aaron, will share her story at CycleNation on Oct. 18 at The Armory at Russell Sage College. Visit to join us at the relay-style, stationary cycling event with an 80s theme.

When Jennifer DeFazio had a stroke four years ago, she said “it felt like something exploded in my brain.”

Around the time of her 43rd birthday, DeFazio’s neck bothered her. The pain at first was a normal “sore day,” given the level of activity that had always been part of her life. The director of Operations at Carousel Industries in Colonie, DeFazio also taught HIIT classes at the Bethlehem YMCA, ran and worked out regularly. But things changed shortly after that.

“I was at my stand-up desk, having a great day at work on my actual birthday,” she said. “I suffered incomprehensible vertigo, lost my legs, and collapsed at my desk.”

DeFazio’s office door was closed, but she called for help, and Colonie EMS responded quickly.

DeFazio said her perspective was all wrong, too.

“I lost all awareness of my surroundings,” she said. “I thought the stretcher was on the ceiling. I also was incredibly nauseous. EMS had to pick me up and put me on the stretcher.”

Initially diagnosed as having onset vertigo, DeFazio insisted she wouldn’t leave the emergency department until she had a scan, because she knew something was terribly wrong.

“I felt like I was dying,” she said.

A CT scan followed by an MRI showed that DeFazio had had a stroke, caused by the severing of her vertebral artery. A stent repaired the artery, and DeFazio spent 10 days in the hospital.

“I couldn’t go till I was stable,” she said, “so I walked that floor with my walker until I could diligently.”

DeFazio said the first year of recovery was the most difficult.

“It was very frustrating,” she said. “I wasn’t the same person. I went to PT three times a week, for such intense therapy that I sometimes cried during it. I had to re-learn how to walk without being completely unstable. My balance was gone. Lights and sound were difficult. The shower was purgatory because it was all white, and it was hard to get my bearings. My mother moved in so I wouldn’t fall when moving from room to room. She followed me everywhere.”

In the second year, DeFazio’s panic attacks lessened, and today, she feels mostly back to normal. She also has a sense of gratitude for the support she received, which included a visit from her son Aaron, who had just joined the Coast Guard.

“He used his last dollar to visit me, and everyone at his station chipped in to cover that cost when he returned,” DeFazio said.

“It sounds strange, but I feel fortunate that it happened,” DeFazio said. “Life is so fragile, and I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. My change management skills are great, and I’m grateful to be in my 40s.”

DeFazio is back to teaching HIIT classes, running and riding her new Peloton.

She’s sharing her story to help raise awareness about stroke, and to help fund research from the American Stroke Association. 

DeFazio is married to Jason DeFazio, and has two sons, 23-year-old Aaron and 20-year-old stepson, Sonny. She lives in Glenmont.

“We want everyone to know the warning signs of a stroke,” said Joan Clifford, chair of CycleNation; Senior Director, Alumni Relations, Russell Sage College; executive director of the Russell Sage Alumnae Association; and board member of the American Heart Association in the Capital Region. “Jennifer’s story puts a face to statistics and by sharing her story, she is helping to raise awareness of stroke and the warning signs. The research of the American Stroke Association has helped individuals like Jennifer in their recovery. Events like CycleNation help fund this vital research and create more survivors.” 

To join DeFazio and Clifford at CycleNation, register at