How a Stroke at 21 Changed the Course of My Life
By LISA DECK
February is American Heart Month and to support heart health, the LIVESTRONG.COM blog is publishing a series of heart-focused articles to share strategies on how to protect your health.
My story begins at age 21. I was a college senior, one week away from graduating magna cum laude from American University in Washington, DC. I was a healthy and active young woman with many friends and a loving family. I was about to start my first official job in just a couple months — life was good.
On May 7th, 1997, all of that changed. I had come down with a severe headache and noticed that my left hand and arm were a bit numb. After a weekend in bed, I decided to go to the emergency room. At the hospital, the doctor said it was probably a migraine and sent me home. Two days later, when I started having confusion, trouble speaking and face tingling, I took myself to another hospital and noticed a sign that said “May is Stroke Awareness Month,” I read through the signs and immediately realized that I had many of the symptoms listed. But there was no way could I be having a stroke - I was 21 years old.
Yet, just a couple hours later, I was calling my parents to tell them that I had suffered a stroke.
Over the next few years, I suffered two more strokes and was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain disease. I didn’t know if I would ever get rid of the side effects of my chemotherapy, blood thinners and Prednisone treatment. But five years after my initial diagnosis, and as many years of intense treatment, I was finally declared in remission.
I had to adjust to my new life as a stroke survivor and learn how to live with that title for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I learned much about myself over the years and have learned how to live my life fully. So whether you are a survivor or know someone who is, here are a few ways to live with cardiovascular disease or provide support to someone who does.
1. Educate yourself. You have the power to live a healthy life. There are countless resources available for you to learn about cardiovascular disease and its signs and symptoms. Did you know that 80 percent of heart disease and stroke events are preventable? Prevention is key, so you owe it to yourself to learn how to make your body healthy.
A few simple pieces of advice: Avoid smoking, manage your blood pressure and blood sugar, know your cholesterol numbers, exercise, eat well and manage stress. It’s not easy to incorporate all of these lifestyle changes into your life immediately, but a trip to your doctor is a great first step. Incremental change can lead to huge success.
Arm yourself with the signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke and take action immediately should you suspect problems. Quick response time leads to better outcomes so be sure to move quickly. Learn about the signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke.
2. Empower yourself. I encourage you to look at every challenge as an opportunity. I felt such strong feelings of loss as a twenty-something dealing with a stroke, but I chose to think positively. I knew I was strong and decided to focus on that strength rather then the nagging pain and doubt. You are in charge of your life and have the ability to fight back. Be your own advocate. You are stronger then you think and are able to create the life you envision for yourself.
It’s also crucial to surround yourself with loving and positive people. I relied on myself when I was sick, but soon learned that it was crucial to have a support system of people to help me and provide happiness in my life. My friends and family are still the highlight of my life and I cherish my time with them most. Take inventory of those that you know you can count on and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
3. Enjoy yourself. Ultimately, I survived my illness and it gave me another chance at life. I choose to embrace it and appreciate every moment. Take time to find the activities and career that are meaningful to you. One of the silver linings of my illness was learning that this is the only life we have and one that we want to embrace, enjoy and love. I'm not reckless, but live fully in the day to make the most of my life. I challenge you to do one thing daily that brings you joy.
My life didn’t go as planned, but it didn’t end in 1997 when I had my first stroke. I am so fortunate to have survived and even thrived after my strokes. I’m committed to living a healthy life and hope you’ll join me.
Readers - Have you or anyone you know suffered a stroke or heart attack? Did you know that 1 in 3 women die of heart disease and stroke every year? Would you recognize the symptoms of a stroke or heart attack? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Lisa is a three-time stroke survivor, suffering her first at 21 years old as a result of a brain disease called Central Nervous System Vasculitis. This year, Lisa is a Real Women of Go Red For Women with the American Heart Association. She’s an advocate, mom of two, (budding) tennis player, wife, school volunteer, daughter, friend and motivational speaker who provides heart disease and stroke information and inspiration.