I woke up- having a normal kind of day- except that I had the day off due to the President’s day holiday. Mid-morning, I took my shower, and when I got out, I felt off balance. I had just gotten over a head cold, so I wasn’t too concerned- I was thinking it might be a bit of vertigo. I lay down on the couch to watch TV and fell asleep- 10 in the morning---after a full night’s sleep. I woke about an hour later with a pounding headache. I got up, took some ibuprofen and ended up falling back asleep. My friend called- waking me up-, saying that she was outside and ready to go to lunch. I told her I would be right out. It took me ten minutes to get the puppy in his crate, put on some jeans, and grab my coat. I couldn’t wake up. In the car with my friend, I was aware of how my tongue moved in my mouth---most of us are not aware of our tongue moving across our palette---but I could feel it. My friend started backing up, and I couldn’t take it- the vertigo made me feel horrible. I asked her to go grab us lunch and bring it back.
As I was walking back in the house, my mother came home- apparently I called her but don’t really remember. She saw me, and said, “Denise, you are gray. Your mouth is off. I think you have had a stroke. You need to call an ambulance.” I laughed at her. I said, “Mom, I didn’t have a stroke.” She said, “Go look at your face.” I did. My mouth was cocked. I looked sick. I felt lethargic. I said, “Mom, I’ll go to the hospital, but I won’t take an ambulance!” I called my friend, she came and picked me up, and we drove off to the hospital.
At this point, it was after 12:30---I had gotten out of the shower around 9:30-10am. I tell you this because time is of the essence when you have had a stroke. They rushed me right in…my mouth was giving them concern. They took blood and asked me multiple questions. They repeatedly asked me if I smoked. I kept saying, “No.” They asked if I was on any drugs or prescriptions. My response was just my birth control pills. All I could tell them was that I didn’t feel right, my mouth was crooked, and that I was exhausted. I had an echocardiogram, and upon review, they picked up my Patent Forman Ovalue (PFO).
Quick heart history and lesson: When I was born, I had two holes in my heart. Your heart is about the size of a fifty cent piece when you are born. One hole was the size of a dime- it was a VSD- a ventricle septial defect) and the other was much smaller. At six weeks old, I had open heart surgery, and had my VSD repaired. The other hole was a PFO, a patent forman ovale. My whole life I was told this was just a miscommunication and wouldn’t give me any problems. A PFO is the hole in every baby’s heart while in the womb—it gets oxygenated blood to the brain, however, it usually closes naturally in most.
The hospital didn’t find this history of my PFO and birth control prescription a bad mix—why would they? It is a fact that women who take even a low-estrogen birth control pill may be twice as likely to have a stroke than those who don’t and the risk may increase if other risk factors like my PFO are present. In the doctor’s eyes, I was a normal 27 year old with no major health problems. I was too young to have a stroke. Ironically, a year and 4 days previous, linebacker, Tedy Bruschi of the New England Patriots, had also suffered a stroke related to a PFO. Besides, stereotypically, I could speak, raise my arms and walk. I didn’t fit the age old definition of stroke. I was told I had a virus, and I was sent home without answers and frustrated.
Once I got home, I was exhausted. I felt like I had the fatigue of when you the flu. I went to bed with a typical busy house going on around me. My family woke me up a few hours later to eat and half an hour later, at 8:30, I was back in bed and slept until the next morning.
I woke up feeling fine, but after moving around a bit, I started to feel like I was overcoming the flu again. I decided to follow-up with my primary care physician. He didn’t think I had stroke either but with my heart history, he decided to schedule me an MRI. I was thankful that he took me more seriously and had scheduled me a test that would give me more answers. I knew something was wrong with me. That was Tuesday, my appointment was for Friday. Throughout the week, I drove, went to work (many days falling asleep at my desk and going home early.)
After my MRI on that Friday, I learned two things: my husband and I were under contract with our first house and that I had a stroke. I had to go back to the hospital. After multiple tests, and many days in the hospital, I met with my cardiologist. He told me, “Denise, you will not be able to have children because of the blood thinners we need to put you on. These medications can cause harm to the fetus. You will need to be on them for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.” That was the one thing that threw me---I could deal with a stroke---I could deal with that. I looked at the doctor and said, “That ruins my plans. My plan was to get married, then get a house, and then have babies. This will not stop me.”
Using the internet, I discovered that there was a device on trial called a CardioSeal Occular Device. I asked my doctors if I could have it, and I got it! I was able to get my heart fixed. I was a lucky one. There is an estimated 25% of people who are walking around unaware that there is a hole in their heart.
My name is Denise, I am 35, I am married, own a home and have two adorable, funny little boys- Aiden and Elijah.
After my stroke, I have learned how my story has changed others ideas about stroke. My pharmacist- who couldn’t comprehend why a 27 year old needed blood thinners and heart meds. My dear friend, a paramedic, said to me, “Denise, my co-workers and I would complain every time we got calls for twenty-somethings with chest pain. You taught me that anyone can have a stroke or heart attack. You don’t need to be a fifty-something. You helped me become a better paramedic.” Every February, I put my story on FaceBook, and this past summer, an old friend, reached out through FaceBook, to me ask me about symptoms she was having as they were similar to mine. People- please don’t FaceBook me or your friends asking about possible symptoms- if so, you have missed my point.
My point here today is to NOT dismiss symptoms or any feelings you may have about your health. Call 9-1-1. You are not bothering them. It is their job. It is your first line of defense. They start treating you once they are on the scene.
It is important to know the signs of a stroke. They are:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or legs, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
If my mother didn’t know the signs, she probably wouldn’t have insisted that I go to the hospital. I couldn’t smile, but today I can. I stuck to my instincts---even if I was a bit stubborn about it at first. I knew that I was not myself, and that I didn’t have the flu. I insisted that something was not right. Don’t presume. Know that any of us can have a stroke.