Imagine a weird feeling—say, an unusual headache or a random surge of euphoria. Then imagine losing control of your muscles and your voice. Then imagine blacking out and waking up in a hospital. It sounds awful, mind-boggling, and totally unlikely to happen. But even though strokes are rare in people under 55, they do happen. What’s worse, strokes in young adults are on the rise, and while they often start as something just slightly “off,” the results can be devastating.
Five years ago, a friend of mine, Harshada Rajani, experienced the same string of events I describe above. As a 23-year-old, perfectly healthy medical student, she had two headaches that just didn’t feel normal. After seeing several doctors who told her they were migraines, she came down with dizziness and vomiting. Then she lost control of her voice and woke up in the hospital having had a debilitating stroke at the base of her brain.
Strokes are commonly called “brain attacks” because they mirror heart attacks: Something stops blood from reaching the brain, killing the parts of the brain that would’ve received that blood. Like heart attacks, they can be the result of blood clots formed by cholesterol. But they can also happen in healthy people, when gas bubbles block blood vessels, or when those vessels tear for no apparent reason. The consequences are unpredictable: Some patients recover completely; some—including Harshada—end up with disabilities; and some die. After her stroke, Harshada couldn’t move or walk, but she is now regaining those abilities.
Though many associate strokes with the elderly, one-fifth of strokes happen to people under 55. One in seven strokes in younger adults may be misdiagnosed, according to a study in the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases. And new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that, for younger adults, the story doesn’t end even if they recover completely: They have a higher mortality rate for the rest of their lives.
Major hospitals have rehabilitation services geared toward stroke patients, but a full recovery can take years (if it’s possible at all). And for young stroke patients, the path forward is even less clear. “No one knew what would help and what wouldn't,” Harshada told me. “No one even knew if I was going to live or die. So we all were just trying anything and everything. We still do that even to this day. It's all been a frustrating, never-ending trial-and-error process.”
But all is not always lost. Today, Harshada writes about her experiences and runs a nonprofit called We Will Win, dedicated to spreading awareness, building hope, and raising funds for young survivors of strokes and other serious illnesses. She’s still fighting her own battle, pushing through therapy to regain her own function, but helping others with their battles as well.
So what can you do to keep this from happening to you? A healthy lifestyle helps, so here’s yet another reason to lay off alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Apart from that, be sure you can recognize the National Stroke Association’s “Five Sudden, Severe Symptoms” so that you can get yourself or a loved one to help immediately—here are the signs of a stroke to watch for:
SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, 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
Have you known someone who has experienced a stroke? Did you know the warning signs of a stroke?
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Karan Chhabra is a medical student and researcher at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He also edits, writes for, and helps manage Project Millennial. He graduated from Duke University in 2011, where he studied English and wrote his Honors thesis on physician-patient communication. Before medical school, Karan worked at the Advisory Board Company on strategic research for hospital executives. @krchhabra | TakePart.com