It was August 27, 2022, and I had decided to go to work early that morning so I could avoid the heat since it was going to be in the mid-nineties. I was working at a Lowes and had a lot of flower shipments to unpack and put out before my shift was over. Throughout the workday I had a headache, but really didn’t think much of it. I drank some water thinking maybe it would help.
I finished my day at work and had plans to spend the afternoon with a coworker and another friend. I was excited to spend the day with my friends shopping at the mall. I had been working about 50 hours a week over the summer and it was a well-deserved break.
We spent a lot of time walking around and then grabbed a bite to eat. I still had the headache but continued to think I just needed something to eat or was dehydrated. We continued shopping after lunch, but I began feeling tired and drained by the headache. Headaches were not common for me, so I started thinking that I needed to get home.
I dropped off my friends at home and arrived at my house about 5pm. I was tired after walking almost 20,000 steps but so happy that I had such an active day. Less than an hour later, my life would take a huge turn.
I wanted to log into my computer, but I couldn’t get my arms to type my login password. I was frustrated because I knew what it was supposed to be doing, but I couldn’t get my hands on the right letters. Something was wrong. I immediately went to the mirror in my room and tried smiling but the right side of my face wouldn’t go up. I thought I was getting into my own head and went to check my face in the mirror in the living room. There, I was able to smile normally and went back to my room assuming that I was fine. Again, I sat at my computer and was not able to get my hands to where they needed to be. I checked my face once more and again, was not able to smile on my right side. I did not know what was wrong, but I knew I needed to get to the hospital immediately.
I went to tell my parents that something was happening, but I couldn’t get any words out. The noises I was able to get out were incomprehensible. My parents were very concerned about me, asking what was wrong, but I couldn’t communicate it to them. After a minute or two, I was able to get my words back and told them I needed to get to the hospital. My 16-year-old brother came out of his room to see what was going on and knew immediately I was having a stroke. He had learned about the FAST acronym (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 911) from a YouTube video. He told my parents I was having a stroke. My parents and I didn’t think he was right. I had just turned twenty a few weeks ago. I was too young to be having a stroke!
My parents got me to the emergency room within 15 minutes of me experiencing my first onset symptoms. I was very fortunate that they quickly evaluated me. I relayed the symptoms I experienced at home, and they took my vitals which appeared to be normal. Once the ER doctor examined me, he told me it sounded like symptoms of a stroke and that they were going to do a CT scan of my head to see if there were any issues.
While I waited for the results of the CT scan, my mom was trying to talk to me to keep my focus off the current situation. As we talked, I found myself unable to find the words I wanted to speak. It didn’t last long, but we knew it was another sign of something serious going on with me. We told the nurse about it and were told that the CT scan result would come through soon. Within less than an hour of arriving in the ER, I heard a doctor outside of my room saying,
“She’s only 20 years old?” and immediately knew that he was talking about me. Right after that, the alarm on my room started flashing and saying, “Stroke in room 14, stroke in room 14”. I turned to my mom terrified of what I heard, struggling to process what was happening to me.
My ER doctor came into the room quickly and told my mom and I that there was a clot in my brain causing me to have an ischemic stroke. He told me that it was a good thing I got to the hospital as soon as I did because that meant they could treat me, and I would be okay. A few nurses came in to move my bed to another room where they could get ready to start treating me. I remember being quickly wheeled around the hospital and seeing other nurses turning to look at me, probably wondering what could be wrong with someone so young.
When we got to the room, I was immediately swarmed by even more nurses and doctors who were going to assist in my care. I was so terrified that this was happening to me and that only my mom was with me. Thankfully one of the nurses was able to find my dad and bring him back to the room to be with me.
My ER doctor told me that the best way to treat the stroke would be to administer a clot dissolving medicine tPA to see if that would bust the clot. If that didn’t work, they would then perform a thrombectomy which would surgically remove the clot. I was told that there was a 10% risk of the medicine causing internal bleeding and that it was my choice if I wanted to be treated or not. I just wanted them to do whatever they could to keep me alive. I was all for it.
Once I agreed to the surgery, an anesthesiologist began firing questions at me at what felt like a mile a minute to make sure I understood the risk of surgery. That moment made everything feel so much more real. I was scared. I remember the feeling like that day was going to be the end for me. I was trying to tell my parents how much I loved them and that they were great parents. I told them to tell my brother that I love him and thought I wasn’t going to see him again. As I was crying to my parents, a nurse took my hand and was telling me it was going to be okay. I didn’t believe her, but I was so grateful to have a health professional telling me that. It gave me some assurance.
The team brought me down to the catheterization lab, where they administered the tPA. The medicine didn’t work for me, so they put me under anesthesia to perform a thrombectomy. A few hours later, I woke up and was very alert to everything that was going on around me. I was so grateful to be alive and for what the stroke care team had done for me. After the surgery, I was sent to the intensive care unit (ICU) where they would monitor me and check my cognitive functions. Quite frequently, a nurse would come in to do tests on me like asking my name, if I knew what day it was, seeing if I could repeat sentences, those types of things. I was doing well!
In the morning, they evaluated my ability to swallow liquids and a physical therapist come in to see if I was able to walk. I was beyond fortunate to be able to walk well, talk well, and be aware of what was going on after having a stroke the night before. Still, they had to do an MRI to check for brain damage. Later at night, I had the MRI of my head and the next day, found no signs of brain damage. To me, that was the best news I had ever gotten. But I had no idea my journey wasn’t over.
Before I left the ICU, the doctors found a patent foramen ovale (PFO) in my heart which is a hole between the left and right atria (upper chambers) of the heart. This hole exists in everyone before birth, but most often closes shortly after being born. Mine did not. A few days after leaving the hospital, I also found out that I have a factor two clotting disorder. This meant that I needed to have surgery, again to fix the hole.
Since my stroke just a little over two months ago, I have gotten the PFO closed and have been on medications to hopefully prevent a situation like this from happening again. I am grateful to my brother for recognizing the signs of stroke and to my healthcare team for providing me with the essential care I needed. Because of them, I was able to start school just weeks after my stroke and go back to work.
I know that because of the great care of my healthcare team and the work of the American Heart Association to provide the protocols and education around stroke I can have a full and healthy life. I encourage everyone to learn the signs and symptoms of stroke. I am a true example that you don’t have to be older to have a stroke. It can happen to anyone at any age.
To learn more about the signs and symptoms of stroke and how to reduce your risk, visit https://www.stroke.org/
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