Heather’s two young children, 3-year-old Drew and 14- month-old Ella, were eating breakfast. Her husband Mike was heading home from the gym. Heather, an accountant, was sending an email on her Blackberry about an approaching snowstorm that might interfere with a meeting with a client later that day.
Then something happened that jarred their world.
“The best way I can explain it is a head rush, a real bad head rush,” said Heather, who was 33 and seven weeks pregnant with her third child.
Heather thought the feeling was related to her pregnancy or to the migraines she’d suffered for years. She refused to let it slow her.
“I’ve got to get moving,” she thought.
A few minutes later, shortly after 7 a.m., Mike came home and could tell something was wrong with Heather’s health. She insisted she’d be fine.
Soon, Heather felt something odd moving through her body.
It became difficult to lift her arms and legs. She shouted for Mike, who was upstairs showering, but she couldn’t make her voice carry. Heather sent her 3-year-old son Drew to get Mike. Her vision and speech started to deteriorate.
Mike wanted to take her to the hospital right away. Heather told him, “No, no, this will pass.” But her speech diminished some more.
“I gave in and I said, ‘Fine, call 9-1-1,’” Heather recalled.
As paramedics tracked snow into the dining room of her home in Braintree, Mass., near Boston, Heather was more worried about the mess they were making than she was about her own health. Then the gravity of her situation sunk in.
Heading to the local hospital by ambulance, she became completely paralyzed and couldn’t speak. Her head was stuck facing left.
“This can’t be me,” she thought.
While a nanny watched their kids, Mike called Heather’s mother to join them at the hospital. When her mother arrived, Heather heard a strange moaning noise. She didn’t know what it was. Then she realized it was her own horrified cry.
Within 20 minutes of receiving the drug intravenously, Heather could move her head again and her speech started coming back.
Once stabilized, she was transferred to the larger Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she underwent an MRI.
A doctor later explained that she’d had a massive stroke affecting both sides of her body.
Though she had no previously known medical problems, physicians determined she had a small hole in her heart that never sealed properly after birth, a condition known as PFO, or patent foramen ovale. They believe she experienced a clot in her lower body that moved through the hole and to her brain.
Fortunately, Heather went home four days after the stroke. She did not need outpatient rehabilitation.
Before leaving the hospital that February, Heather received a red ribbon commemorating American Heart Month and Go Red for Women, the movement that raises awareness of heart disease as the leading killer of women. Heather still cherishes that ribbon.
Though her recovery wasn’t easy, thanks to family, friends and co-workers she made it through. Her pregnancy commenced, and her son Cole was born that September.
Today, Heather experiences only minor lasting effects of the stroke, such as sensitivity to certain movements. This March, she had surgery to close the hole in her heart and was able to stop taking a blood thinner.
She began to get involved with the American Heart Association, including taking part in the Heart Walk in Boston, to raise money for heart disease research and to call attention to cardiovascular health. Heather’s whole family participated, and she was a Heart Walk team leader for her workplace, PwC. Her team of 10 walkers raised $2,150 this past year, and more than 200 walkers from PwC together raised $50,145.
Now 36, Heather shares her story in hopes of helping others. Her relatives have alerted their doctors to watch for problems; her mother and sister discovered they have a condition that creates a tendency to clot.
Heather knows she was fortunate in many ways and that getting fast medical attention was crucial. She considers herself a practical person, and she offers sensible advice:
“Be vigilant about your health, and don’t assume that something like this can’t happen, because it can.”
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