Sylvia May recalls the day clearly. At 21-years-old, she woke up on a typical Friday morning and headed to her job with the Air Force working on fighter planes. Her day began with an inconvenient headache; however, this was the first sign of an impending stroke.
Throughout the work day, Sylvia’s headache persisted. Along with this, she began hearing a ringing noise, which she could not tune out. As a young and committed worker, Sylvia took some medicine for the headache and went on with her day, knowing she also had a softball game to play later.
Following the hard-played softball game, Sylvia returned home. While catching up with her mother, Dorothy, Sylvia mentioned her headache. Dorothy, a nurse, was empathetic to her daughter’s pain, and told her to take a shower, relax, and get ready for a good night’s rest.
Taking her mother’s advice, Sylvia sat down to watch TV with her brother, Silvester Jr., before heading to bed. The ringing noise Sylvia had been hearing throughout the day grew louder and her headache worsened. Chills started rushing through her left side and her eye began twitching. She turned to her brother to explain how she was feeling and to ask him to get their mother, but her words were unclear. Instantly observing something was wrong, he ran to get their mother. When Dorothy entered the room and saw Sylvia, her nursing training kicked into action.
“As a nurse, my mother immediately sensed the signs of a stroke and asked me to speak and raise my arms,” recalled Sylvia.
Hearing the slur of her daughter’s words and observing the loss of control of her arms and face, Dorothy knew she had to act quickly, ultimately, saving Sylvia’s life. Dorothy recognized the F.A.S.T. signs (face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, and time to call 9-1-1) and sent her son to start the car while she wrapped cold towels around Sylvia’s arms and head.
When they arrived at the emergency room, Sylvia was greeted in the parking lot by a team of medical staff and a gurney- the last thing she would remember before waking up on Sunday, over a day later.
Upon waking up, Sylvia was informed she had survived a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a ruptured blood clot. With no signs of further risks, Sylvia was sent home to a week of bedrest.
Reflecting on her recovery, Sylvia stated, “At 21 years old, this was unexpected, and I was very frightened as I thought about the early deaths of two of my grandparents from strokes at ages 32 and 49.”
Sylvia remembers how reassuring her mother was during this time, helping her cope with her fears and return, as best as possible, to her life.
As years passed, Sylvia resumed her life as a healthy, vibrant individual. Although, into her later twenties, she began noticing difficulties with her vision and a persistent ringing noise in her left ear. At an eye appointment, the doctor confirmed the damage to her eyesight.
A few years later Sylvia had a head injury at work and needed an MRI. During the scan, the ringing noise in her head became piercing, halting the MRI and sending Sylvia to an ear specialist. The doctor informed Sylvia that she had Meniere’s Disease, a chronic condition in the inner earring causing the ringing noise (tinnitus).
Since her stroke at 21, Sylvia’s story has been one of resilience. In her forties, Sylvia was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which she has survived for 18 years. Eight years ago, she was also diagnosed with diabetes. Along with her strength regarding her own health, she has also persevered through the loss of her father due to heart disease and has witnessed her twin brothers and mother experience and survive strokes and heart attacks.
Still, Sylvia and her family push forward to live and enjoy life to the fullest, thankful for each other and every day.
Sylvia is also a lifelong baker, learning to decorate cakes at the age of 10 from her mother and later turning her talent and passion into a career. Her beginnings, from a child baking buttermilk biscuits from scratch for her siblings and selling cookies in her neighborhood in Compton, California, have led her to her work today. Sylvia is launching her own business, Netty Kakes, to share her gift with others. She also works with Publix Aprons, where she teaches people simple ways to cook at home and discusses the importance of having conversations about nutrition as families.
When she is not baking, Sylvia enjoys watching the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers, and track and field events.
Along with sports, Sylvia enjoys her time spent with her loved ones, including her husband Ronald May and her three grown children, Ahrianna, Amber and Ronald Jr. “I am a very proud daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt, niece, cousin, mother, wife, and friend to so many. My Mother says, ‘God left you here for a reason’. I really think He did.”
Sylvia’s advice for others is, “Know the signs. It might save you are someone else. Tell your story. It’s good for your family to know the history. Learn to eat right, exercise, don’t smoke, limit your drinking or just don’t. Laugh to relieve stress. Help others. Enjoy life. Thank God daily.”
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The American Heart Association, Richmond is working with local partners to improve access to and consumption of healthy foods, catalyze efforts to improve social determinants of health and improve access to and quality of primary care in Greater Richmond. We are grateful for our volunteers and supporters who are a relentless force for longer, healthier lives for everyone in the Richmond area. Keeping hearts beating is what keeps our hearts pumping.