On Heart and Home (or, How I Had a Stroke and Tried to Ignore It)

This is about as much red as I can usually handle. Image via Talk of the House

This is about as much red as I can usually handle. Image via Talk of the House

Red is not my favorite color—at least, not for the home. Red lipstick? I can rock it. Red shoes? Been known to wear ‘em. But it’s not a color I often utilize at home, mostly because it makes such a bold statement. Red says: “Look at me.” Red says: “Pay attention to me.” Chair, pillow, or piece of art, you cannot ignore red.

It’s no surprise, then, that the American Heart Association uses red as a tool for raising awareness about heart disease and stroke, especially in February (National Heart Month). Supporters wear red on February 3 to help raise awareness, and some retailers sell red merchandise to benefit heart health research.

Um, why am I writing about heart disease on a decor blog? Truth be told, it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. Here’s why.

Two years ago this Sunday, I woke around 6 a.m. as I normally do. When I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, a splitting headache set in: sharp, piercing, and entirely focused on the right side of my head. “Ugh,” I thought. “This is what I get for drinking sweet white wine.” (The previous night, friends had come over for fondue and Riesling.) I stood up and headed downstairs to the kitchen, where I began to prepare breakfast for my kids. As I attempted to slice a strawberry, my left hand kept slipping—I couldn’t seem to hold on to the fruit. I tried again and fumbled, tossing the strawberry onto the floor. I turned to my husband, who had come down to join me. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked him, rolling my eyes. “It’s like my left hand is asleep.” “Maybe you slept on it funny,” he suggested, “or maybe you were leaning on a nerve in your elbow.” He offered to finish making breakfast, and I headed up to get my son, who was just starting to stir.

Upstairs, I lifted my son from his crib and set him on the rug for a diaper change. He was just learning to speak, and as he laughed and babbled to me, I babbled back. Or at least I thought I did: While the syllables formed in my head, nothing was coming out of my mouth.

In the back of my mind, I knew something could be wrong. These are stroke symptoms, said a little voice in my head as I carried my son down two flights of stairs. But as a 35-year-old-woman in relatively good shape, I brushed off my hunches and continued toward the kitchen. I handed my son off to my husband and explained I wasn’t feeling well, and I headed up to my bathroom to shower and get ready for work.

As I ascended the stairs again, a recent Facebook post by a neighborhood acquaintance, Jessica, sprang to mind. An uber-healthy 36-year-old who teaches Pilates and barre at a local studio, Jessica had experienced similar symptoms, followed by her leg going numb in the shower. It was a stroke. After her recovery, she began working with the American Heart Association to spread the word about recognizing stroke symptoms in healthy young women, hence her story crossing my social media feed. I thought about Jessica as I glanced past my reflection in the medicine cabinet, and I stepped into the shower. The little voice got louder–Listen to your body!—but it still didn’t stop me from continuing my routine.

If she could have one, I could have one. Image credit: Jessica Diaz Wellness via Page 38

If she could have one, I could have one. Image credit: Jessica Diaz Wellness via Page 38

I stood under the running water, and that’s when I lost feeling in my left hand. I raised my arm to coax some shampoo through my hair, my fingertips touched, and everything was wrong.  It felt as if I was touching a stranger’s hand with my right, and my left hand felt like it was made of thick, dense rubber. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I’m having a stroke.”

I quickly rinsed off, wrapped myself in a towel, and looked at my face in the bathroom mirror. I lifted my brows—and the left one didn’t move. I smiled, and only the right side of my mouth showed a grin.

The crazy part is, I still doubted my instincts. I still thought to myself, “This can’t be happening,” even though it clearly was. I could still walk. I could still mostly talk. “I’m only 35,” I thought. But images of Jessica’s face and fit physique kept flashing through my head, and the voice got louder and louder. If that barre instructor can have a stroke, so can you, it said.

I yelled down to Dave. Thank God I could still yell. I told him what was happening, told him to get our au pair to take our son, and told him to take our older daughter, Sarah to school. “Don’t let them see me,” I thought. “This could get worse.” (This is how convoluted the motherly mind can be—you’re having a stroke, but you still want to get the kids to school.) And of course, since 70 percent of me wanted to deny what the rest of me knew was happening, I called not an ambulance, but a neighbor to take me to the ER. She arrived in a heartbeat, and I climbed into her car.

As we drove the ten minutes from my house over to Massachusetts General Hospital, I felt fine. My hand felt normal again, and I could speak. But as soon as I reported my symptoms—trouble speaking, weakness on one side, a drooping face—through tears at the front desk, a team mobilized. I was rushed through processing and into a wheelchair, then laid on a stretcher in the Acute section of the ER. Within minutes, I was screened by a neurologist and had a CAT scan, followed by an MRI and a few other procedures I can’t remember.

It was a stroke, they confirmed, in the right prefrontal cortex of my brain, which governs complex cognitive behavior, personality expression and decision-making, in addition to controlling parts of the left side of the body. I bawled, and I panicked, and I spent three days in the Neurology unit at MGH while they did test after test to uncover the cause. They didn’t find one—no high blood pressure, no clotting disorder. The only contributing factors they pinpointed were my history of migraines (a correlation, not a cause) and a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a small hole in the heart that sounds a lot scarier than it is. Twenty-five percent of healthy adults have a PFO, and it doesn’t cause any issues for most people. But on the rare occasion that a blood clot forms and travels to the heart, the clot can slip through that little hole and make its way to the brain, blocking blood flow, and that’s exactly what happened to me. To keep it from happening again, I just have to take a daily dose of aspirin, which will thin my blood and reduce my annual risk of recurrence to just a few percent.

Over the next few months, things gradually returned to normal. I regained control of my facial muscles, and the fogginess, confusion, and exhaustion that often follows a stroke began to dissipate. Today I feel almost entirely normal, with the exception of days when I’m overtired from work and shooting my book—on those days, I still sometimes find it takes extra concentration to solve complex problems or take in complicated streams of information. I take 81mg of aspirin daily.

It’s possible I could have completely ignored my stroke on February 12, 2015. And given my relatively seamless, unaided recovery, I might not even have noticed that it had happened. But because I went to the hospital that day, I know to take that one tiny pill each day—a pill that could very well save my life. And the reason I went to the hospital was a woman named Jessica, who shared her story with the world and made me realize that a stroke could happen to me.

So today’s post is about awareness, and paying attention, and listening to your heart and your conscience when they speak. And since we all could use a little reminder once in awhile, I’m going to use it as an excuse to add a little red to my home and life. You can’t ignore these picks, now, can you? Pitter-patter.

1. Letha pillow in red, $52, Joss & Main. 2. Alachua coral sculpture, $45, Wayfair. 3. Brianne rattan barstool, $204, Joss & Main. 4. Hailey table lamp, $166 for two, Joss & Main. 5. Striped tribal kilim, $220, Etsy. 6. Butterfly oval tray, $64, Jayson Home.

1. Letha pillow in red, $52, Joss & Main. 2. Alachua coral sculpture, $45, Wayfair. 3. Brianne rattan barstool, $204, Joss & Main. 4. Hailey table lamp, $166 for two, Joss & Main. 5. Striped tribal kilim, $220, Etsy. 6. Butterfly oval tray, $64, Jayson Home.

For more information about the signs of a stroke, click here.