The morning of June 20, 2013, started out like any other. I was 36 years old and had recently become a certified Barre instructor. I led two classes that morning, then ran to another studio to take Zumba. Then, I rushed home, excited to take my daughter to her first kids’ yoga class. Because I was so active, I thought I was living my healthiest life and I was eager to introduce her to the joy of fitness.
I had just jumped in the shower when all of the sudden I felt a shooting pain down my left side. My left arm just sort of let go; I had no control over it. The sensation only lasted about 30 seconds, but it really freaked me out. So I turned off the water, found my husband, and said, “Oh my God, something really bizarre just happened to me," and went on to explain the sensation I felt in the shower. After looking me over, he said, “You look fine. You’re fine.”
I decided he was probably right, so I got back in the shower.
But soon after, I developed a headache. I do get migraines on occasion, but this felt very different from any headache I’d ever had. I wanted to get out of the shower, but realized that I couldn’t lift my left leg. My husband helped me out of the bathroom and suggested that I lay down. After an hour, I called my primary care doctor and explained my symptoms. The nurse said, “I want you to hang up the phone and call 911.” And I thought, This woman is out of her mind, I have to get to that yoga class.
Then I did everything you’re not supposed to do. I ignored the nurse’s suggestion and blow-dried my hair. I thought she wanted me to go to emergency room, where I’d wait hours to get Tylenol for my particularly severe migraine. I also didn’t love the idea of leaving my daughter, 5, and son, 2. But when the symptoms continued, I finally asked my husband to drive me to the ER. Yoga would have to wait.
Fortunately, we live close to Mass General, which is an amazing hospital. When I walked into the emergency room, the doctors took me right away and put me in the MRI machine. Although the noise inside the machine resembled the grinding of a trash truck, I fell asleep, which is highly unusual. That’s when I think they knew something was seriously wrong. They pulled me out, and started to piece all my symptoms together. Soon after, they brought my husband in and told me that I was having a stroke. I found out later that it had been going on for about four hours by the time I arrived at the hospital.
I was terrified—and confused. I thought a stroke was only something that happened to really old and sick people. I thought, Wait a minute, I’m a fitness instructor following a healthy lifestyle, and I have this old person disease? No way! My doctors told me it would take five weeks to figure out what was going on with me, including three to four weeks in a rehabilitation hospital to regain use of my left leg. All I could think was, What about my kids? They need their mother.
But miraculously, when I woke up in the hospital the next day, though I was very groggy, I could walk again. As I eventually came to learn, the duration of stroke rehabilitation depends on the severity of the stroke. Some people recover quickly, while others require years of physical and cognitive therapy. I was very lucky. My doctors attributed my quick recovery to the fact that my stroke was, in the scheme of things, not very severe. They also said it was helpful that I got medical attention within the critical three to four-hour window. Another thing that worked in my favour: my general good health. I had recently lost the 80 pounds I gained during my last pregnancy. Had I not been so fit, my doctors said that my recovery would have been much harder.
My doctors told me I was fortunate. I’d had an ischemic stroke, which blocked blood flow to my brain. My doctors called it a "warning stroke." They assured me that if I didn’t get treatment, a massive stroke might be a year, month, or even a week away.
While I was in the hospital I underwent a series of routine blood tests that revealed that I have a blood disorder called Factor 5 Leiden, a mutation that increases the chance of clotting. A lot of people live their whole lives with Factor 5 and don’t know it. My doctors also discovered I had a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect called a patent foramen ovale (PFO), which is a small hole in the heart that didn't close the way it should after birth. All of these issues ultimately caused my stroke. The clot had formed in my heart, passed through the hole, and travelled to my brain. Or as one of my doctors told me, “you had a Tedy Bruschi.”
Tedy Bruschi, a former linebacker for the New England Patriots, had the same blood clotting disorder, the same hole in his heart, and the same stroke during the height of his career. One of my doctors happened to have treated Bruschi and recommended that I talk to him about surgery to repair my heart. Having the surgery wouldn’t guarantee that I’d never have another stroke, but I thought it might help put me at ease.
Bruschi said it wasn’t fun having the surgery but the peace of mind it gave him was worth it. So I decided to go through with it. After the surgery, I thought, Can I really start chasing my kids again and picking them up? Then I thought, Oh wait a minute, Tedy Bruschi’s out there playing football; I can absolutely pick up my kids.
Making peace with my new reality
It was just after I had heart surgery that I made peace with the fact that I’d had a stroke. Initially, after it happened, I didn’t even tell my bosses at the Barre studio. I was embarrassed that I had what I considered to be an “old person’s sickness” and didn’t give myself time to adjust to my new reality.
For many stroke survivors, there’s this sense of the "old me" and the "new me." I was trying to be the old carefree version of myself that didn’t worry about things like blood clots. But that wasn’t going to keep me healthy.
After some time had passed, I started attending events at the American Heart Association and the Stroke Association. And eventually, I reluctantly shared my story. Afterwards, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes. She said, “My first stroke was just like yours, and I ignored it. I have two kids at home, and thought I didn’t have time to go to the hospital.” Her symptoms seemed to disappear until a few months later when she was eight weeks pregnant she had a massive stroke.
A new perspective
Having a stroke has changed my life in so many ways. When I look back, I could tell you how many calories I ate for breakfast the day of my stroke, but I had no idea if I had high cholesterol or high blood pressure. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about these things until I was 55 or 60. I was a fad dieter who was all about the number on the scale and fitting into my skinny jeans.
But now my perspective has shifted from the short term to the long-term when it comes to taking responsibility for my health. When I asked my doctors how I should eat after the stroke, they vaguely recommended the food pyramid. I’ve since educated myself a lot on nutrition and learned how high-fat meat and dairy could lead to inflammation that can cause disease. I now follow a plant-based diet. I wish I had realised sooner that less salt and less fat in your diet could really have an impact on your health. I know that eating that way earlier probably wouldn’t have prevented my stroke, but 80% of heart disease and stroke are preventable by lifestyle choices, so I'm hoping my diet keeps me healthy in the future.
I’ve also taken responsibility for tracking my health data. People often switch doctors, so they might not know that even though their blood pressure is within the normal range, it’s gone up in the past few years, which could be a sign of a problem. If you’re keeping track of your numbers yourself, you can identify changes and patterns and alert your doctor.
My stroke has also given my new purpose. In addition to teaching Barre and working with the Stroke Association, I’ve been trying to get legislation passed that would provide funding to test pregnant women for Factor 5. (In addition to causing strokes, my blood disorder can also cause a miscarriage.)
My experience has also changed my whole family. Now my husband and I speak to our children about what it takes to be our healthiest selves. My husband and I are avid exercisers, and we tell our kids that I've been doing so well since I was in the hospital because I’m taking care of my health. Thankfully I’m able to workout as intensely as I did before the stroke, but staying really hydrated is important for anyone with Factor 5 as well as people who have suffered a stroke because dehydration increases the risk of clotting. Now, you’ll never see me without a water bottle by my side.
When I had my stroke nearly five years ago, it seemed rare. But now I hear about more and more young people having strokes for different reasons. It’s so important to know that it’s ageless. I just hope young women learn the signs and symptoms, so they don’t ignore their stroke. There’s definitely time to make changes so you can prevent a bigger one.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.