“I Had a Stroke in My 20s.”

One woman’s story of how suffering a stroke in her mid-20s changed her life — for good.

young woman strokephoto credit: shutterstock

I sit on the curb, light a cigarette and wait for the police. It is a sunny Sunday afternoon in August in Victoria, and I have just gone through a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle.

When the police arrive, I try to tell them I was on my way to the emergency room, but the words don’t come out right. I don’t say that I wasn’t able to feel the right side of my body after falling out of bed early Saturday morning, and that I flopped like a fish on dry land as I tried to get back up onto it. Or that for 36 hours afterwards, as feeling slowly came back, all I could do was drag myself occasionally to the bathroom, and to the fridge for apple juice. Or that I never once thought of calling 911, not even as I dragged myself out to my car to go find help. They wouldn’t believe me, for this is the evidence before them: a woman in her mid-20s, dressed in a navy and hot pink one-piece bathing suit over exercise tights (it seemed like a good idea at the time), unable to stand, woozy and slurring. When they ask where I live, I can’t remember and I have no ID. They think I’m on something and should be taken to the ‘drunk tank’ to sober up before I’m charged. But the man whose car I’ve hit steps in. ‘There’s something wrong,’ he says. ‘Take her to the hospital.’

The police do. But they also tell the intake nurse about the accident and suggest I be left to ‘come down’ from whatever I’m on. I say nothing. I can’t. It’s like a film reel unspooling before me, something I’m watching rather than involved in. The minutes turn into an hour, then 90 minutes. Then my father, a well-known Vancouver eye surgeon, calls. He’s been looking for me because I missed a flight to Vancouver, where I was supposed to visit overnight, and haven’t called to say why. ‘Does your daughter have a drug problem?’ the nurse asks. ‘No,’ my father replies. ‘Get her into a CAT scan now!’

The signs of a stroke

That’s how, 40-odd hours later, my stroke was found. Like about 80 percent of strokes, mine was ischemic, caused by a clot that blocked the flow of blood to my brain. And though I’d like to think we know better now’that when a younger person comes into an emergency room with symptoms such as dizziness or partial loss of vision, medical personnel will automatically consider the possibility of a stroke’it’s still not always the case. People under the age of 50 constitute only a fraction of those who suffer strokes each year, and in these cases doctors often miss the signs of a stroke. In fact, a 2009 study out of Wayne State University in Detroit found that 14 percent of them are misdiagnosed as having conditions such as migraines, inner ear disorders or seizures.

That may not sound like much but to Seemant Chaturvedi, a neurologist who was one of the study’s lead authors, it’s huge. ‘Today, we have to make an accurate diagnosis quickly because we have tPA [a clot-busting protein introduced in the mid-1990s], which must be administered within a three-to six-hour window,’ he says. ‘One of the important messages of this study is that strokes happen at all ages, even in children.’

Until August 1986, when I had my own stroke, I knew nothing about them. As a hard-working, hard-living reporter for a Vancouver newspaper who had been fast-tracked onto the political beat, I was too busy. I had no idea that my smoking habit, which had begun when I was 13 and grew to 60-odd cigarettes a day, combined with the birth control pills I was taking and the occasional migraine with aura, made me at least 16 times more susceptible to a stroke than other women under the age of 50. The specialists didn’t clue in, either. They tested me over and over until they finally admitted they couldn’t find an underlying cause for the clot; not enough was known about stroke at that time. Puzzled, they simply told me there was little chance of a recurrence but to quit smoking just in case, take an Aspirin a day and have a nice, careful life.

Now, there is more awareness in the medical community that lifestyle is a big factor for strokes. Peter Rothwell, a professor of clinical neurology at Oxford University in England, recently conducted a comparative study of strokes that occurred in the 1980s and those since 2002. He notes that even as men have decreased their risk of stroke by 50 percent over the past 20 years, the rate of decrease for women trails far behind, at only 15 to 20 percent. Over that same period, there has actually been a slight increase in the number of strokes in women under the age of 50. ‘Even with the newer contraceptive pills, there’s a risk,’ he says. ‘Women are quitting smoking more slowly than men are, and little exercise and higher alcohol intake can increase blood pressure for both men and women. And once you get into your 40s and 50s, there is a lot more use of HRT [hormone replacement therapy] now than there has been in the past.’ (HRT increases stroke risk in post-menopausal women.) ‘There has to be more emphasis on public education,’ he continues. ‘When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you can’t imagine having any health issues. But there are risks.’

Seeking a change

Despite what my doctors told me, I couldn’t just go off and live carefully ever after. It drove me crazy that my bosses at the newspaper were treating me as a fragile little thing who would break apart again at the slightest challenge. I needed a change. In 1988, I moved to Montreal, to a new language and a new job writing sports features.

‘I don’t do golf and I don’t do curling,’ I told Mel Morris, then the managing editor of the Montreal Gazette. So much for that. My first assignment was in Chicoutimi, covering the Canadian Men’s Curling Championship. And that was okay, although I didn’t have a clue what I was watching when I first walked into the arena.

I took boxing classes, went bungee jumping and climbed cliff faces, finding an outlet in being reckless as I dealt with the fact that I could have died. Eventually, I tempered the activity with a routine of weights and long-distance running, but the stroke had left my right side residually weaker than my left so that during runs, my right foot would often drag after an hour or so and I’d fall. Both knees are still scarred a deep red, tangible reminders of routes long and hard, and now, after five marathons’including New York, Chicago and Vancouver’I have settled into more leisurely trail running with my husband and our dog. When we run, my husband still (only half-jokingly) calls out things such as ‘Watch out for that little twig!’

This too is one of the vestiges of my stroke: that out of something so catastrophic, I am willing to see new possibilities and take risks despite an ever-present fear of the unknown. That’s my overriding message when I tell my story in public or counsel friends in private, because I got a second chance and I don’t want to waste it, no matter how scared I am. The stroke may have happened 24 years ago but it still influences my day-to-day life, and if my story helps even one woman quit smoking or adopt a healthier lifestyle, then telling it is worth it.

This article was originally titled ‘Stroke of luck,’ in the March/April 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe to Best Health today and never miss an issue!

Originally Published in Best Health Canada