A 27-year-old was hospitalized with a stroke the day after her birthday party - but doctors thought she was just hungover and almost sent her home

·6 min read
Brittany Schreier
American Heart Association Go Red for Women
  • Doctors thought 27-year-old Brittany Scheier's first stroke, the day after her winery birthday party, was alcohol-related.

  • She was almost discharged while having a second stroke, but her mom advocated for a brain scan. 

  • Scheier, a successful lawyer, is encouraging women to know the signs and speak up for themselves. 

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Doctors encouraged Brittany Scheier to confess. "They kept asking me, 'Did you do drugs? It's OK [if you did],'" she said. 

But Scheier, who was 27 at the time, had nothing to reveal, except that she'd been celebrating her birthday at wineries the day before. Then, in the middle of the night she woke up with extreme nausea and ran to the bathroom to throw up. 

Related: How anesthesia affects your brain and body

"All of a sudden I realized I couldn't move the right side of my body. I tried to stand up, I couldn't. I tried to reach for things, I couldn't," Scheier, now a 30-year-old lawyer in Houston, told Insider. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick, and she screamed for her roommates, who carried her limp body to a car and drove her to the emergency room. 

"We had no idea what was going on," Scheier said. 

The doctors thought they did: It looked like the case of a young woman who drank too much and maybe did drugs the day before. It wasn't until five hours later that a neurologist finally ordered a CT scan and diagnosed Scheier with a stroke. 

"It was just shocking," Scheier said, "I thought strokes were only something that happened to people my grandparents' age." 

Scheier, now a volunteer for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women "Real Women" campaign, is talking about her experience so other young women are aware of their risks, know what to do to reduce them, and feel empowered to advocate for themselves. 

Scheier had another stroke that almost killed her 

Two days after her hospital admission, doctors were prepping to discharge Scheier, when she started to lose her memory. "People kept asking me questions, I wasn't able to respond. My vision was getting worse. I had a really bad headache," Scheier said. "And they were still discharging me." 

Her mom, who'd flown to Texas from South Dakota where Scheier grew up, insisted on another MRI. The scan revealed she'd had a second stroke that was five times bigger than the first. Doctors treated her with blood thinners, but didn't know if she would survive. Her parents called in a priest to pray.

"Here I am this healthy 26-year-old who's was just about finished with law school. I had a job lined up and I was just like enjoying life," Scheier said. "And all of a sudden it's like, 'Am I going to be able to be a lawyer? Am I going to be a professional in any industry? Or am I going to need my parents' help for the rest of my life? Am I even gonna make it?" 

Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, an American Heart Association Go Red for Women volunteer medical expert and cardiologist in New York City, told Insider Scheier's experience demonstrates how critical it is for women - who are more likely to get, and die from, strokes than men - to advocate for themselves within the healthcare system. 

"So many times I hear, 'I was listening to the doctor. Maybe they're right,'" she said. "No one knows our bodies as well as we do. Nobody is living in our bodies. We know when we're not OK." 

Scheier developed a rare post-stroke pain condition 

Scheier survived, but the hits kept coming. A day after her eventual discharge, she felt as though her entire right side, from the top of her head to her feet, were asleep. The tingling "only grew stronger to the point where I couldn't really eat because I couldn't feel the right side of my mouth or tongue, and I couldn't walk because I couldn't feel my foot," she said. 

Scheier returned to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with thalamic pain syndrome, a rare side effect of stroke. "There's tons of things that most people don't know about that can develop post-stroke, and this pain disorder is one of them," Scheier said.

Others can get seizures, lose their vision, or have another stroke. In fact, 1 in 4 stroke survivors will have another. But Scheier is passionate about helping people prevent the first one, in part by recognizing the symptoms, which differ between men and women. 

While all genders can experience numbness, slurred speech, vision and coordination problems, and headaches, women may also experience weakness, confusion, fatigue, and nausea. "I had the classic stroke symptoms," Scheier said, "but it didn't cross my mind." 

Brittany Schreier
American Heart Association Go Red for Women

Scheier finished law school while relearning how to drive and comfortably walk

Scheier's recovery involved outpatient occupational, speech, vision, and physical therapies. For six months, she cycled through medications that could help manage her pain disorder, but they all came with side effects. 

She had to relearn how to drive, and her mom temporarily moved in with her and her law school roommates. She couldn't be left alone because her depth perception and coordination made it difficult to walk. "I can't tell you how many walls and poles I ran into," Scheier said. 

And yet, Scheier refused to pause law school for longer than a week. "I'm going to go after my dreams no matter what," she thought. She graduated on time five weeks later, and landed a job as a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a top international law firm. Now, she lives with mild pain and some vision loss, but rarely consciously thinks about it.

"My stroke, if anything, motivates me to realize, 'Hey, life is really short and it can end at any moment,'" she said. "So it's motivated me to be a better lawyer and motivated me to be more successful in my career." 

Scheier is also more motivated to take care of her body. She's worked with a nutritionist to improve her diet and a therapist to help manage stress. She plays sand volleyball for fun. 

She wants other people, especially fellow high achievers, to take steps like those before a health crisis strikes. Up to 80% of strokes are preventable with lifestyle changes and work with a healthcare team to watch for conditions that can lead to stroke. "Go after your dreams, climb the corporate ladder," she said, "but take yourself seriously along the way."  

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