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.