At 4 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, I awoke out of a deep sleep and thought I was having a nightmare. I could not move my legs or my left arm. In addition, the left side of my face was drooping. A sense of sheer panic overtook me; I yelled out to my husband Terry and said, “I think I am having a stroke.”
He immediately dialed 911, and I heard him say that his wife was having a stroke. I remember thinking how odd that sounded since “I” was his wife. By that time, I had tried to get up but found myself on the floor. I wondered if this was what it felt like to die.
The ambulance arrived within minutes. I remember a paramedic asking me questions and trying to keep me calm. The siren echoed in my ears, and I felt like I was falling. I had never been in an ambulance and my mind kept screaming: “I’m only 53 years old, I just ran 6 miles yesterday and now I’m having a stroke!”
When I arrived at the hospital, I was taken in for a CT scan, and Terry talked to a doctor via a computer screen. I kept hearing phrases like “large blood clot in the brain” and “need immediate surgery.” The surgical team was waiting for me at another hospital, and before I knew what was happening, I was back in the ambulance. I was terrified and shaking. Please, God, I prayed, this cannot be happening . . . not to me!
When the ambulance door opened, I remember seeing my brother and sister-in-law standing there with their faces clouded in fear. I knew I was awake but at the same time felt like I was trapped in a horror movie—the super scary kind where you know exactly what is happening but cannot move your body.
The staff prepped me for surgery because doctors had found two clots on my brain. The larger one was affecting my limbs and the smaller one my speech. By this time, I was in shock, wondering if I was going to have brain surgery. The next thing I remember was asking when I would have the surgery. A nurse replied that the surgery was over.
I had undergone a relatively new procedure called a thrombectomy, in which a small wire is inserted through an artery in the groin, and then through the heart to the brain. Once there, it can grab the clots and remove them. The surgery was a complete success. One doctor used the word “miracle” as I was surrounded by a roomful of smiling medical faces and my family.
The results were immediate, and I felt such a relief being able to move my arm and legs. Still, we did not know the extent of damage to my brain or cognitive ability. The next day, occupational therapy, physical therapy, neurology and interventional radiology professionals visited me.
The team asked if there was someone who could help take care of me at home. At that moment, Terry walked in the room and I said, “Here’s my knight in shining armor.” The medical staff froze; Terry was wearing a sling on his right arm and a cast on his left hand, due to a bike accident in July when he was hit by a car. I had been helping take care of him for the past two months, and now we had no idea what my care level would be.
Terry had been scheduled to be out of town on business the day of my stroke, but the meeting had been canceled. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been alone, unable to grab the phone or dial.
At first, I could barely walk without the help of a walker. I remember being harnessed to a nurse and walking in a daze down the hospital corridor. I thought, what if I could never walk again on my own? As a lifelong runner, what would I do if I could never run again? I asked if I would be able to still speak Italian, my family language. The doctor replied, “Well, if you start speaking French, then I will know we have a serious problem.” I heard myself laugh and thought, how can I possibly laugh right now?
I also had a problem with my vision. Picking up items was difficult. I was asked to draw a clock and show where the hands would be at 2:15. Time seemed to stand still as the occupational therapist watched me. It took everything in my control not to look at the clock on the wall, but I passed the test.
Friends and family came to visit. It tore me apart inside to see that now-familiar look of fear in their eyes. I usually was the one who took care of others, and yet here I was, trapped in a body that didn’t work anymore.
I spent three days in the hospital, with two in ICU. In that time, my mobility, my dexterity, my cognition, my vision, my comprehension all dramatically improved. I felt stronger both physically and intellectually.
I was released.
And then, to add insult to injury, I was sent home with three very new unwelcome friends: a walker, a shower chair and a blood thinner prescription.
Still, it was a very difficult adjustment at home, especially emotionally. I developed night terrors that I could not escape. Our bedroom became “the scene of the crime,” and I feared walking into it. I tried sleeping on the couch but found myself haunting the halls. I was afraid to sleep, and when I did sleep, I kept waking up to make sure my legs moved. I had barely processed Terry’s near brush with death and now I had to process my own.
The night terrors persisted and turned into day terrors. Panic, anxiety and fear ruled my world.
Some days my brain felt foggy, but happily, my physical limitations all disappeared.
What remained was a common symptom of PTSD for a stroke survivor who remains conscious during the attack. My own body had not only betrayed me, but had tried to kill me. I saw myself as permanently broken and grieved for my old self, which seemed lost forever.
I learned that even a short-lived physical trauma can destroy your feeling of safety. This was further compounded by my being a Type A personality. Sometimes I felt like a brand-new box of Legos that contains all the pieces, but I didn’t know how to put them back together. I had to learn to let go despite the fear I was not in control of my emotions.
It has been 21 months since my stroke. I have returned to running. COVID seems less frightening since I have already faced a life-threatening event.
I am still in counseling, which has been a tremendous help in navigating my way through this journey to finding acceptance. I attended a stroke survivor group meeting. I have the support of my family, my friends, my Catholic faith and my co-workers, who inspire me every day to stay strong. My medical team found the cause of my stroke, which was a hole in my heart that has now been surgically repaired.
I still don’t know why I survived, but I have learned so much about myself. It know it is OK to ask for help and that excellence does not require perfection. I also learned the hard way that my present situation is not my final destination.
Most of all, I plan to greet each day with an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude is learning to appreciate each situation, however challenging. It is finding the good in things, in the world and in people. If you get a parking ticket, be grateful you have a car. If you are stressed about school, be grateful you can afford an education. If work is driving you crazy, be grateful you have a job to provide for your family. We all have a short time on this planet, and we should appreciate every moment.
At one of my follow-up cardiology appointments, I asked my doctor, “What should I do now?” I will never forget the four words he said: “Go live your life.”
And yes, I am truly grateful each day my feet hit the floor for this second chance to live.
Trish Fontana was born and raised in Sacramento. She attended elementary school at All Hallows and St. Mary’s, St. Francis High School and CSU Sacramento. She has worked for two California lieutenant governors, two governors, two first ladies and two state senators, and she currently works in the California Capitol for Sen. Richard D. Roth, a retired U.S. Air Force major general who represents Riverside.
Two most common types of strokes:
Ischemic: Occurs when a blood clot blocks a vessel carrying blood to the brain, cutting off blood supply to the brain.
Hemorrhagic: Occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, resulting in bleeding in the surrounding tissue.
Feel fine one minute and the next minute not so great?
Manoj Mittal, M.D., medical director of Stroke and Neurocritical Care at Sutter Health Valley Area, says not to ignore symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, numbness and weakness, especially if they seem to come out of nowhere. “Anything that happens suddenly should be checked out,” says Mittal. “Let the doctors figure it out. Let the doctors manage you.”
Stroke and COVID-19
News that some COVID-19 vaccine recipients have developed blood clots may make you wonder if it is safe to get a vaccine for COVID-19. It is, says Sutter Health doctor Manoj Mittal. “There is no data to say that COVID vaccines can cause stroke, but COVID itself can cause the strokes,” he says, explaining that the body tends to make more blood clots with COVID.
Five myths about strokes—and the real facts you should know
Myth: There is no history of stroke in my family, so I am not at risk.
Fact: In the United States, stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability and the fourth leading cause of death, says stroke expert Manoj Mittal.
Myth: Stroke is strictly an old person’s disease.
Fact: Although the risk for having a stroke increases with age, stroke can occur at any age. Factors such as heredity, gender and race play a role in your chances of having a stroke as does the use of oral contraceptives, marijuana and street drugs.
Myth: You can’t prevent a stroke.
Fact: Knowing your personal risk factors and making proper lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, can help mitigate your chances of having a stroke, according to Mittal. “Eighty percent of strokes are preventable,” he says.
Myth: If your symptoms go away, you’re OK.
Fact: You may have experienced a mini stroke, also known as a transient ischemic attack, which could be a precursor to a more severe stroke. “Someone who’s had a TIA has a high chance of having a stroke within one week,” Mittal says. “It’s very important to seek medical attention for any stroke like symptoms, even if they pass. Paying attention to warning signs that go away may help prevent an actual stroke.”
Myth: Stroke is a heart problem.
Fact: “Stroke is not a heart disease; it is a brain disease,” says Mittal.
It’s About Time
If there’s one thing Dr. Manoj Mittal wants you know about strokes, it’s this: Time is of the essence. Every minute that your brain is having a stroke, millions of brain cells are dying, he says. “The sooner we can open those vessels, the sooner you can survive for stroke. If you get to the hospital in the first few hours, they have treatment options to help you live an independent life again,” he says.
Signs You May Be Having a Stroke
- Weakness in an arm or leg
- Facial drooping
- Balance issues combined with vision loss
- Sudden headache
- Slurred speech and sudden confusion
If you think you are having a stroke, call 911. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital or have someone else drive you, advises stroke expert Manoj Mittal. “People with stroke symptoms are treated more promptly in the emergency room when they arrive by ambulance,” he says. “The hospital and team are ready for them. The lab team is waiting for them.”