May 15, 2003 came to be known as the Very Bad Day. It started off like any other, and I remember thinking in the morning that work was quieter than expected. Several hours later, I was in the ICU while doctors at George Washington University Hospital monitored my vital signs and ran tests to determine what had caused a stroke in a seemingly-healthy 29 year old (who didn’t smoke, use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol).
On that morning ten years ago, I started feeling odd. I was not in pain, but something wasn’t quite right. I asked a coworker to drive me home but had trouble giving her directions to my apartment, which was less than 15 blocks from our Capitol Hill office. Frustrated, I tried writing them down, but the words were out of order. I laid down when I got home, but within minutes, I couldn’t move my right side. That was when I realized what was happening. I used my left hand to email my coworker to ask her to take me to the hospital. I was fortunate to be taken to George Washington University Hospital, which is nationally recognized for its quick response for stroke patients.
What a Stroke Is
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is blocked by a clot, ruptures or bursts. The resulting lack of oxygen causes brain cells to die within minutes. Prompt medical treatment is critical to minimize brain damage.
My stroke was caused by a rare autoimmune disease, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, which caused my blood to clot unnecessarily. More common risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and heart disease.
Know the Signs and Act Quickly
I had heard the signs of stroke, but it never occurred to me that I was having one. Strokes happen to grandparents, not to people my age, right? Wrong! 10 to 15% of strokes occur in people 45 or younger. Even children and babies can have strokes.
The American Stroke Association encourages everyone to learn the signs of stroke -- coined the F.A.S.T. approach -- and to act quickly if stroke is a possibility.
F=Face: Does the person’s face droop, or is his/her smile uneven?
A=Arm: Is one arm weak or numb? Can the person raise both arms?
S=Speech: Is speech slurred or difficult to understand?
T=Time to call 9-1-1: If the person has any of these signs, don’t delay in calling 9-1-1 and getting the person to the hospital immediately.
Ten Years Later
I am still very grateful for the neurology and hematology teams at GW Hospital and for the staff of the National Rehabilitation Hospital for the roles they played in my recovery. I am also thankful for my mom, friends and coworkers who helped in many ways, large and small, immediately after my stroke and throughout the following months.
And check back next month when PhRMA releases an updated report on Medicines in Development for heart disease and stroke.