I Had a Stroke at 41. Here's What I Wish I Had Known

When I first went to the ER, my elevated blood pressure was chalked up to "holiday stress."

It was Christmas Eve, and I was visiting my parents in Kentucky when my mom noticed that my eyes looked "funny." I had had a headache for several days leading up to the trip, and she could tell something was off.

By the time the holiday was over, the pain had become intense—an all-over ache that made it difficult for me to even hold my head up—and I felt a heaviness in my chest, as though a football player was standing on top of me.

As a scientist, my mind reeled with the possibilities of what could be wrong. The night before New Year's Eve, I returned home to Chicago and went to the ER.

The (Mis)diagnosis

The staff working the holiday shift found my blood pressure was elevated but chalked it up to "holiday stress" and sent me home. They instructed me to touch base with my doctor in a few days.

The next 48 hours were agony. I was unable to sleep. The heaviness in my chest never let up. And my headache continued to make it impossible to focus or even stay upright.

So I went back to the ER. Again, I was told I had elevated blood pressure. This time the staff conducted an array of tests—and the doctor determined that I had a stroke.

I was blown away.

It was two weeks after my 41st birthday. I had been a college athlete; I ran track. Through my 20s and my early 30s, I'd been a certified personal trainer. I had never been sick in my life, and I maintained what I believed to be a healthy lifestyle. And yet, a doctor was showing me an X-ray of my brain and pointing to a dark spot where a blood vessel had burst. It was surreal.

Hypertension Doesn't Discriminate

My stroke was a direct result of undiagnosed hypertension. I was walking around with high blood pressure and didn't know it. As it turns out, that's surprisingly common. They call hypertension the "silent killer" because it's possible to have dangerously high blood pressure and no symptoms. For a lot of women like me, having a stroke or heart attack is the first symptom.

I ate healthily and exercised regularly—but I had a family history of hypertension. Both my mom and dad had high blood pressure. (In the years after my stroke, they both died of congestive heart failure.)

The damage I endured in my brain led to weakness on my left side, particularly in my arm and leg. I had four weeks of inpatient physical therapy and another month of outpatient therapy. I also saw a speech therapist for a month. While I could speak, I had a difficult time stringing together sentences. I knew what I wanted to say but had trouble phrasing.

There were emotional effects too. When you go through a near-death experience, you feel terrified for quite some time. For months, every twinge and every small change in my body made me worry. My Type A personality took a backseat at work as I tried to control my stress level.

A 2016 study in the journal PLoS One shows that a Type A personality—characterized by high competition, ambition, impatience, and vulnerability to stress (among other characteristics)—is associated with hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, including stroke.

And the American Heart Association (AHA) explains that hypertension damages arteries, making them more likely to burst or clog, which in turn can cause a stroke.

There was no compromising on this. I needed to manage my stress.

All in all, my recovery took about a year. I know that I was extremely lucky to survive. Had I not returned to the ER, I wouldn't be alive today.

My Mission

Years later, in addition to eating healthy and working out, I am constantly tuned in to my blood pressure. I'm on medication and, per my doctor's recommendation, I use a home blood pressure monitor to take readings at least three times a week. The Omron device I use is FDA-cleared for clinical accuracy; it syncs with my phone and automatically logs and charts my readings, which I can share with my doctor. I carry it with me wherever I go.

The ability to know my blood pressure at any point in time has made me feel empowered. It's like moving from the dark into the light.

I don't want others to go through what I did. So, in addition to my full-time job, I am also a trained advocate for women's heart health through an organization called WomenHeart. They've trained over 900 advocates like me across the country. We've all been through a one-week training at the Mayo Clinic on heart conditions, diagnosis, treatments, public speaking, and advocacy. After we leave the Mayo Clinic, we go back to our communities and raise awareness.

There are a few things I hope people take away when I share my personal story. The first is that it can happen to anyone: Heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases (CVD) don't discriminate by age or gender—and they can affect even those who have a seemingly healthy lifestyle.

According to the AHA, CVDs—which includes stroke—claim more lives in the US each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases combined. And according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Mid-Life Health, CVD kills more women than men each year.

The second is that we must advocate aggressively for ourselves and our health, especially as women. Multiple studies, including a 2022 study published in the journal Circulation, show that, compared to men, women with symptoms of cardiac events are far more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the ER or to get delayed care.

There is no question in my mind that if I were a man, no doctor would have told me that my symptoms were due to "holiday stress" and sent me home. It's disappointing, but not shocking, that men are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, but women still make up the majority of its fatalities.

The same 2022 study in Circulation also states that a woman's lifetime risk of having a stroke is 25.1%, and that "women face a disproportionate burden of stroke mortality and disability." My determination to return to the hospital to get better care saved my life.

Finally, I want to spread the word that it is critically important—and astonishingly easy with modern technology—to know and monitor your blood pressure. When was the last time you took yours? Knowing your numbers is the first step toward making changes that could save your life.

I wish I had known all those things. But since I have been given a second chance, I have made it my mission to make sure others do.

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