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 my eyes looked "funny." 

I 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 made it difficult for me to hold my head up. And I felt a heaviness in my chest, like a football player was standing on top of me.

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

Here's what I wish I would've known before having a stroke at 41.

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 healthcare provider in a few days.

The following 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. But this time, the staff conducted various tests—and the healthcare providers determined that I had a stroke.

I was blown away.

It was two weeks after my 41st birthday. I had never been seriously sick and maintained what I believed to be a healthy lifestyle. I had been an athlete, running track during my college years. Through my 20s and my early 30s, I'd been a certified personal trainer. 

And yet, a doctor showed me an image of my brain and pointed 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. According to a 2018 report, it is estimated that 11 million adults in the U.S. have undiagnosed hypertension.

High blood pressure is called hypertension. It's also called the "silent killer" because it's possible to have dangerously high blood pressure and no symptoms. In fact, for a lot of people like me, having a stroke or heart attack is the first symptom.

I ate healthfully and exercised regularly—but I had a family history of hypertension. Both my mom and dad had high blood pressure. During the years following my stroke, they both died of congestive heart failure.

Side Effects and Recovery

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 it.

There were emotional effects, too. You feel terrified for quite some time when you go through a near-death experience. 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.

A study published in 2016 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) says hypertension damages arteries, making them more likely to burst or clog, which 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 fortunate 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 healthcare provider. 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 a trained advocate for heart health through an organization called WomenHeart, which has trained over 900 advocates like me across the United States. 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 couple of things I hope people take away when I share my personal story. 

Stroke Can Happen to Anyone

Heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases don't discriminate by age or gender. And they can affect even those with a seemingly healthy lifestyle.

According to the AHA, cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, claim more lives in the United States each year than all cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases combined. And according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Mid-Life Health, cardiovascular diseases kill more women than men each year.

Cardiovascular Diseases Disproportionally Affect Women

We must advocate aggressively for ourselves and our health. Multiple studies, including a 2022 report published in the journal Circulation, described that women with symptoms of cardiac events are more likely to be misdiagnosed, sent home from the ER, or get delayed care compared to men.

There is no question in my mind that if I were a man, no healthcare provider 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. However, women still make up the majority of its fatalities.

The 2022 report also stated 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 for better care saved my life.

A Quick Review

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

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

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4 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
    • Ciemins EL. Application of a tool to identify undiagnosed hypertension — united states, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018;67.doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6729a2
  1. Steca P, D'Addario M, Magrin ME, et al. A Type A and Type D Combined Personality Typology in Essential Hypertension and Acute Coronary Syndrome Patients: Associations with Demographic, Psychological, Clinical, and Lifestyle Indicators. PLoS One. 2016;11(9):e0161840. Published 2016 Sep 2. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161840

  2. Desai S, Munshi A, Munshi D. Gender Bias in Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Detection, and Management, with Specific Reference to Coronary Artery Disease. J Midlife Health. 2021;12(1):8-15. doi:10.4103/jmh.jmh_31_21

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