Meghan McKee knew she had a hole in her heart that could lead to a brain attack. Teaching her boyfriend, now husband, to recognize the signs of stroke proved to be a lifesaving move.

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As a physical therapist, Meghan McKee regularly works with stroke patients, helping them through recovery. But six years ago, Meghan didn't recognize that she was having a stroke.

I was born with a hole in my heart but didn't find out about it until I was 17. Since I was in good health, and it didn't prevent me from being active, I chose not to have surgery to repair it. "If it's not broken, don't fix it," one doctor told me.

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Credit: AdobeStock

My condition (like all heart conditions) put me at higher risk for a stroke because it can make it easier for a blood blot to travel to your brain. A stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked by a clot or bursts, depriving your brain of blood and oxygen. It can be disabling, or even deadly. To reduce my risk, I made a point to stay active. I ran, biked, did yoga, and took Pilates and barre classes. I would often exercise up to twice a day. The majority of the time, I also tried to eat a healthy diet filled with raw, unprocessed foods.

It happened to me one Saturday

The possibility of a stroke was always in the back of my mind, so when I moved in with my boyfriend, Steven, in 2014, I told him, "I know this might sound strange, but I'm at risk to have a stroke. It probably will never happen, but I need you to understand the signs and symptoms."

Steven works in finance, not health care, so I wanted to make sure he knew what to do.

He was definitely taken aback at first, like, "Wait — what?" I'm not sure Steven really knew what a stroke was before we spoke about it. Still, he committed the symptoms to memory and we moved on with our lives.

In 2015, less than a year later, I was having a typical Saturday. I'd gone to spin class that morning. Steven and I went for a walk and had a late lunch. When we got back to our apartment, we decided to watch a movie. I reached for the water bottle on my nightstand, but my left hand missed it and instead, smacked down on the nightstand like a dead weight.

At the time, I didn't realize how odd that was. (This is called left-side "neglect," and it happens when a stroke affects the right side of your brain — It alters how you perceive your own body.) I picked up the water bottle with my right hand instead. Drinking water was difficult. When I took a sip, I coughed and choked. But again, I didn't register why.

"You're not acting right," Steven said.

I had absolutely no idea what he meant — which terrifies me now to think about.

Steven had to point out that the left side of my face was drooping and my speech had become slurred. I couldn't stand on my left leg, and he had to pick me up and move me to our bed before he called 911. Although I knew stroke symptoms from my training and work, I couldn't see them in myself.

In the ambulance, I told the EMTs, "I'm 31! There's no way that I'm having a stroke." Not until they showed me that I wasn't able to lift my arm did I finally accept what was happening.

Quick thinking—and luck—saved me from what could have been a life-altering event

I was so fortunate that the hospital is 10 minutes away from my apartment had a specialized stroke center. I was able to be treated quickly. Within 12 hours, I was up and walking again, with someone holding my hand. My face began improving and my smile looked more symmetrical.

The doctor didn't need to tell me what would have happened if I hadn't received treatment so fast. I could have lost the ability to use the left side of my body. My speech could have stayed slurred. My life would have become extremely different.

I stayed in the hospital for a week. During that time, I underwent surgery to repair my heart condition. One stroke increases the chance of another in the future, and I didn't want that to be part of my story anymore.

After my discharge, I did plenty of strength and conditioning exercises at home. Building my endurance back up, though, was slow going. At first, I could only walk on the treadmill. Two months later, I was jogging. Fourteen months after my stroke, I finally ran a nine-mile trail race—with one of the doctors who'd treated me in the hospital.

For now, I'm very satisfied to only run a few miles, while I push my 1-year-old twin girls in their jogging stroller. (Steven and I married in 2017.) Still to this day, my left foot and hand don't move as well as they used to. Sometimes, I try to move my fingers and they get stuck, or I take a step and my toes curl.

Still, I'm not in any position to complain — I know how much worse things could have been. Steven and I just kind of go with, "We're lucky, let's count our blessings, and pay it back." If all anyone remembers from my story is the signs and symptoms of a stroke, and to call 911 immediately, I'm okay with that.

A stroke can happen to anyone, at any age, which is why it's important to "BE FAST" and seek immediate emergency care if you or someone close to you notices any of these symptoms:

  • Balance (loss of balance, dizziness)
  • Eyes (vision changes)
  • Face (drooping eyes, headache)
  • Arms (weakness, numbness)
  • Speech (trouble speaking, confusion)
  • Time (to call 911)

Having gone through this potentially life-altering event as a couple, Steven and I value each other even more. The man I love literally saved my life just by listening to me and thinking quickly. If that doesn't strengthen a relationship, I don't know what will.

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