Let me tell you about my grandfather.
My grandfather was a violinist and trombonist. He was in the band in World War II, which is how badass a musician he was. I'm not sure whether we actually sent musicians in against Hitler but it seems like it would be pretty effective, given my experience of one year living near a marching band practise field. He worked as a carpenter and built violins in his spare time at a little table in the basement.
When my grandfather was 52, he was driving along the street and suddenly veered off the road, driving into the side of a drug store. The guy behind him stopped to see if he was OK and my grandfather was already dead; he'd had a stroke. This was the year before I was born.
Having a stroke is a lot about luck. You should know the symptoms. If you get any of these, you should call 911.
Common stroke symptoms seen in both men and women:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg -- especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Women may report unique stroke symptoms:
- sudden face and limb pain
- sudden hiccups
- sudden nausea
- sudden general weakness
- sudden chest pain
- sudden shortness of breath
- sudden palpitations
(This list and a lot of other information are available at the National Stroke Association web site.)
Sometimes it's hard to tell if they really are what you think it might be, but having any two of these symptoms is a definite 911 situation.
But it's luck. The morning of my stroke I felt lightheaded, but that was easily explained because I hadn't eaten before working out. I felt weakness, but that was also obviously because of not having worked out for a while. I didn't feel the one-sided weakness that would have twigged me to a stroke. When the dizziness and nausea came on, I connected them more with the migraines my friends have than a stroke. I was even briefly worried that I'd developed a sudden severe allergy to banana bread (I adore banana bread and this would have been worse than a stroke, and I am not exaggerating).
Luck is that Noel was home and was an impartial judge who decided we should go to the ER. Luck is that I realized that an ER might have strong drugs for a migraine so I went along with it. Luck is that the really bad part of things happened while I was under observation. Time is brain cells in a stroke, and the response to my stroke took under five minutes.
One of the things that has been most interesting to me about this stroke is how people react to it.
Everybody wants to know WHY it happened, what I did that made it happen. What it was about me that made this horrible thing happen.
This is what caused my stroke: chance. Probably genetics.
By chance I had the kind of arteries that delaminate spontaneously. There's no evidence that I did anything to cause this; I don't do extreme sports or get chiropractic work or try to lift heavy things with my head, ever. Those are the risk factors for my type of stroke, and none of them fit me.
(As a side note, don't ever let a chiropractor touch your neck. I'm not joking when I say that EVERY doctor told me this could result in instant death if you have my kind of arteries, and you cannot know if you do or not.)
I don't smoke, I'm not diabetic. The classic young woman stroke is from smoking and taking birth control pills, but that doesn't quite fit me, either (I do take birth control pills).
There's a minor additional risk of stroke from taking thyroid medications (which I have taken for almost seven years now since I got Hashimoto's Thyroiditis in 2006) and birth control pills. My GP and I had a serious conversation about why I take those pills and what we can do to remove that risk factor, but nobody thinks that caused the stroke. The stroke was caused by just having been built slightly wrong. Lots of people are built like this. It may run in my family.
My grandfather had a stroke on the same artery, on the same part of the brain. I never knew him, but his death was part of my life; my middle name is from him, my brother's name is from him. I have on my bookcase a violin he was making when he died, and his bow. And now we have had the same stroke. He was unlucky, I was lucky. In the years between our strokes, medical understanding and treatment of the condition changed completely. Had he survived, he would probably have had major deficits; I'm walking and talking and everything works except my balance.
It is sometimes hard to come to grips with random chance. I learned all about that when I got Hashimoto's and I wanted to know WHY WHY WHY. There is no why. The why is that we are human beings who are all put together in a certain way and sometimes things go wrong. We get sick, things fall on us, we trip and fall into deep holes. Some of those things might have been preventable. Sometimes hindsight is amazing -- ask me how I'm feeling about not pushing for an MRI of my shoulder a year ago.
But things happen, things happen to us when we aren't expecting them, sometimes they are unusual and confusing.
Can you avoid a stroke? Don't smoke, especially not if you take birth control pills. Exercise as much as possible. If you're diabetic be a good patient. Don't eat non-food edible items like fast food or packaged processed food items that play havoc with your cholesterol and blood pressure. You still might get a stroke. I'm not saying doing these preventative things aren't worth it -- they are basically how I live my life (well, except I'm not diabetic even though it seems to have plowed through my family with impunity). What I'm saying is that you can do your best and still have bad luck.
My mother and I talked about my grandfather's death, 43 years ago. She thought that if he'd survived his stroke and lost his ability to play music -- and he had a cerebellar stroke so that was a possibility -- he would have died inside. Stroke care was very different back then, and in many cases you might have been better off just dying. Now I'm looking at going back to work, part time, two weeks after my stroke.
Sometimes you get unlucky and have a stroke. Sometimes you get incredibly lucky.