February is American Heart Month. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and heart attack and stroke are responsible for one in three deaths, or 2,200 deaths per day, according to the CDC. Heart attack and stroke are all too familiar in my family. But this fall, stroke touched another important person in my life, my dear friend Michelle. She is a lifelong competitive athlete, and as an extremely physically fit, health-conscious young woman who was already an advocate for awareness of heart disease, she is the absolute antithesis of what you would think of as a cardiovascular patient.
And that’s the point. At thirty-two and in wonderful health, she had a stroke.
As her friend and former roommate, I have always admired Michelle’s tenacity and drive—from running marathons and competitive cycling to building her career and maintaining friendships, she does everything with gusto. She has responded to having a stroke with grace and that same tenacity, and I am so proud of her continued efforts to advocate and raise awareness about cardiovascular disease in women. Please read her story below, in her own words, and learn the signs and symptoms of stroke and heart attack.
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I’d like to say a special thank you to Laurie for inviting me to take part in her wonderful blog. I believe the work she is doing is so meaningful for everyone. We will all experience illness at some point in our lives. Many of us may just get the flu but often we all struggle silently with illness like pain or diabetes. I appreciate the opportunity to share my story.
I was always the “healthy” one. I’d been an athlete for as long as I could remember. I teased my family that I was going to be an athlete because they used to take me cross country skiing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California for hours during the winter as fun. High altitude training at the age of 7!
As a junior national athlete in rowing, I went on to row in college and later picked up running marathons for 8 years. In 2010 I found my way to competitive bike racing via triathlon. The training and female competitive spirit in bike racing appealed to me. Yet, I wondered if we could do something more then just ride bicycles. What if we could give back to the community for a cause while training and racing?
The cause for my race team, RED Racing, was inspired by the death of my father, who passed away from a heart attack in 2006. It turned out that many women on my team had their own families impacted by heart disease and stroke. While my cause was around heart health and my dad, I soon learned that heart disease and stroke is the #1 killer of women in the U.S. Today, RED Racing is a group of female cyclists committed to developing competitive racers while building awareness and supporting the American Heart Association.
Ironically, on Oct 13, 2012 I found out that this disease can affect anyone, including me.
I was riding my bike that Saturday morning with a friend. We were about 35 miles out and headed home when my vision suddenly changed. I got off my bike ASAP and thought maybe I needed to eat something so I wolfed down my shot blocks but things didn’t change. The world looked sideways. I discovered that by shutting one eye everything was fine. Closing the other eye again, everything was fine. But with both eyes open I had double vision.
I was definitely worried and couldn’t imagine what was happening. I thought, “I’ll just close my eyes and take a deep breath and this will all go away. I can handle this. I can control this.”
My friend helped me walk to a driveway to sit down and call for help. While seated I kept falling towards the right and wasn’t able to see clearly. A woman (a mom) pulled out of her driveway and stopped to check on us asking if we were okay. For the first time in my life, I actually said “no,” and asked her to drive us to urgent care. She ended up driving us all the way back to Baltimore and to Johns Hopkins. She and my friend are my guardian angels! They really saved me that Saturday by knowing to call for help and getting me to the hospital as fast as possible.
I couldn’t make my eyesight go back to normal and in the car to the hospital things got a little worse. My speech was slurred and I threw up (although that made me feel better.) By the time we go to the hospital about an hour had passed. I had a team of 10-12 people assessing me and got to a CAT scan very fast, where the brain scans showed that I had a tiny stoke but no major damage. All tests show that I’m perfectly healthy and they don’t know why this happened. The one thing to point to is birth control.
Honestly, I’m still a little anxious by all of it. I really never thought this could happen to me. Even when I was having symptoms I didn’t think it was a stroke. I thought maybe I was tired or didn’t eat enough. This was a terrifying experience. I’m so lucky to see. I’m so lucky to be able to get back on my bike. I’m so lucky to be alive.
I’m grateful! So grateful.
Now, about 3 months later, I feel great. My vision is fine but I’m still going through some blood tests as the doctors are trying to understand why this happened. I’m off birth control and take a small 81mg aspirin daily. Now, I have a chronic illness. I have an acute understanding about how fragile life is and how quickly things can change. I’m not the only 32-year-old who has had a stroke and many of the stories I’ve heard are devastating. Paralysis, blindness, and death could have been my reality. Now I consider everything I eat. I worry about what pregnancy could bring and I live my life with an illness that is silent. Another stroke could be in my future and there aren’t many warning signs for me to show if I’m at risk. The best thing I can do is to eat leafy greens and live the best life I can.
We are a group of female cyclists committed to developing competitive racers while building awareness and supporting the American Heart Association. Our combined mission will be to dispel the myths and raise awareness of heart disease as the number one killer of women. We hope bike riding can be another means to empower women to take charge of their heart health, to feel young again, and to be inspired to live a healthy lifestyle. RED Racing is the avenue for us to raise awareness and support the AHA in its fundraising and awareness goals. (Editor’s note: you can check out the RED Racing fundraising page by clicking here.)
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Thank you for sharing your story, Michelle. I am so grateful you are doing so well.