I woke up at 6:45 a.m. on October 26, 2017 with the worst headache of my life. The pain felt like my worst New Year’s Day hangover multiplied by at least 10. The sharp sensations seemed to be coming from the middle of my brain, spreading through my head as the morning progressed.
I felt fine the night before, staying up until 2 a.m. playing catchup on some work. As the communications director for a global company, late nights and early mornings weren’t out of the ordinary for me. But today, the pain was so bad I knew I couldn't rally. I called in sick, popped some aspirin, and went back to bed.
I woke up and felt exactly the same, if not worse, by lunchtime. I called my boyfriend (now fiancé), Nick. As I tried to tell him what was going on, he interrupted to say that I wasn’t speaking in full sentences, which was weird because I thought I was talking clearly. He promised to stop by after his last meeting wrapped at 4 p.m. I went back to bed.
When Nick arrived around 5:30, I got up, leaning on the walls for support to get to the door. He looked so worried when I answered, and I wondered if I was underestimating this whole thing.
Nick guided me back to bed and told me he wanted to call my cardiologist, whom I'd been seeing regularly after training for a half-marathon left me short of breath. Although I wasn’t able to hear the doctor’s side of the conversation, Nick’s serious facial expressions told me he didn’t like what he heard. After he hung up, he wouldn’t tell me exactly what the physician said—only that we needed to get the hospital. He didn’t want me to worry without knowing for sure what was going on.
Twelve hours after my first pains, we got in an Uber and rushed to the emergency room. When we arrived about 15 minutes later, we found out my doctor had called ahead, telling the admission staff to look out for me because he believed I’d suffered a stroke or other brain injury.
Even though I heard nurses say “stroke,” I thought I was too young to have this happen to me. It had to be something else.
I described my symptoms to the ER doctor, and Nick told him how fragmented my responses had been during our phone call. The doctor said I’d immediately undergo blood work and scans of my brain, arteries, and heart.
Even though I was with Nick, I felt lonely as we waited for the results. I still hoped this headache wasn't a stroke or something equally dire, like a tumor. Whatever it was, I wondered what set this in motion. I just ran a half-marathon a few weeks before. I was healthy.
I was feeling so much, but I didn’t discuss it with Nick while we waited in my hospital room. It was quiet enough for us to hear every beep and roll of a hospital cart in the emergency wing.
Several tests later, the doctor was ready to speak with us. Basically, when I started to feel the pain first thing in the morning, a clot had formed in one of the arteries in the middle of my brain, affecting blood flow to the parts of it associated with speech, logic, and how fast I process info. It was an Ischemic stroke, the most common type, affecting 87 percent of all stroke patients.
Still, it's not common among young people—in fact, only 34 percent of people hospitalized for strokes in 2009 were under the age of 65. I was an otherwise healthy 35-year-old.
The doctor admitted it was unclear what triggered the blockage. They also said the lack of blood flow damaged cells in important parts of my brain, making it harder for me to communicate. What’s worse: My attempts to sleep it off prolonged getting medical care, making the destruction worse. How much worse was hard to say, but specialists would be able to assess the extent of my injury and recommend the best course of treatment.
As the doctor went over the details and planned to admit me for at least few nights, I stopped listening. With the results in, I was terrified.
The next morning, as I spoke to the nurses, I realized that getting words out wasn’t happening as easily as it should. I was able to speak, but I hadn’t had a conversation since the day before my stroke. After the incident, I didn’t say more than a few words at a time because of the pain. Now, it felt like every sentence was filled with awkward pauses, causing me to drag out phrases that should've been completed quickly. My thoughts were complete, but it was like my mouth couldn’t cooperate with my brain to produce them out loud.
I attempted to journal on my second day at the hospital, hopeful that all I needed to do was try another form of communication, but aphasia impacted my ability to write, too. My moment of optimism gave way to quiet tears as I sat alone in my room.
I worried how long I’d have to cope with this condition. Would it be a lifelong issue? How could I do my job as a communications director if I couldn’t even properly express myself to my boyfriend? I felt like the thing that defined me, my voice, was stolen from me.
The next couple of days in the hospital dragged on. I had my blood drawn several times a day for clotting tests and cholesterol, elements that can cause a stroke. My girlfriends also came bearing gossip magazines and fun socks to replace the ugly hospital stockings. They cheered me up, even if the conversations were physically hard for me to get through.
Therapists came in periodically to assess basic skills such as walking and brushing my teeth, skills that can be impacted by a stroke, depending on the extent of the injury. I passed all of the tests, but I was humbled.
Once doctors agreed I could handle everyday functions, I was discharged after five days.
A few days after returning home, I was uneasy about interacting with strangers who didn’t know what I’d been through. Still, I needed food, so I went to the grocery store. I was slow to respond when one of the cashiers asked if I wanted to use my reusable bags or the plastic ones. So the cashier asked me to repeat myself. I just nodded, uttered a simple “yes,” and pointed to the reusable bags I brought with me. I’d never felt more uncomfortable.
After that, I limited my outings, getting groceries delivered as often as possible and only meeting friends at my home. Even though I looked fine, the fragmented sentences made me self-conscious.
Doctors insisted I start speech therapy as soon as possible. When I booked my first session, my lead therapist explained that the goal was to increase function in the damaged parts of my brain, improve speech, and help my mind find new shortcuts to get the words from my head to my mouth.
She shared examples of the kind of drills we’d do together, like riddles, word problems, sample essays—basically, middle-school activities. One puzzle required me to deduce what people were wearing as well as their favorite foods and colors from a series of clues. I felt like I was going in circles and missing things I should have been able to catch quickly. I cried, frustrated that she was assessing my ability from this exercise and that this stupid problem wouldn’t help me get back to crushing it at work.
But she said completing the puzzle wasn’t the whole point. Doing the exercises forced my brain to find new ways to do what it used to without using the damaged cells. I was pushing it to tap into new ones and get faster at the process. As time went on, I got quicker and started to feel more confident.
Six months after the stroke, the doctors cleared me to return to work.
I was inspired to leave the house for things beyond therapy, moving from home hangout sessions with my girlfriends to brunch at a restaurant. I also revisited hobbies like running and, eventually, writing.
Nearly two years later, I’m finally optimistic about the whole experience. I’m thankful to be alive and even more grateful that I’ve rebounded so successfully. I left my corporate communications gig to pursue a less crazed public relations position at a non-profit. I live a slightly new normal: I see a cardiologist for checkups as I continue to run. I also take blood thinners every day to prevent clots, since one in four stroke survivors are likely to have a repeat experience.
These days, I pay more attention to my body. When I’m tired, I sleep; when I’m in pain, I don’t ignore it. Sometimes I think about how I could have lost the pieces of my identity that are most important to me, and I get overwhelmed. But then I open my eyes and see I still have time to live my life, be with loved ones, and continue emotionally healing, and that’s what counts.
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