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Maria Lewis

May 27, 2015

 This time a year ago I would have had no idea that yesterday, October 29, was World Stroke Day. Strokes are something a 23-year old doesn’t think about. At most I worried that my grandparents may be affected by one, but they’re both healthy and fit individuals.

But in April, it was my grandparents visiting me in the stroke ward at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

My day had started off just as it normally did: I got up, caught the train to work and after my shift I popped downstairs to exercise in the company gym. It was after I finished going for a light 15 minute jog that I started to feel unusual. At first it was just a light tingling on the left side of my lip until it went numb, followed by my left hand until it also went numb. It was then that I was struck by a pain in my head so sharp I went momentarily blind. The intensity of it was extreme and I stumbled to find my footing. Grabbing my gear, I retreated to the ladies were I sat with my head between knees and tried to regain my senses. Having low blood pressure normally, I thought eating a muesli bar might give me the boost I needed. I could barely chew.

I had no idea what was going on. As someone who’s usually on the bruised side of clumsy I know what the after effects of a concussion feel like, and that’s the closest I can come to describing the sensation. Except I hadn’t hit my head and my blood pressure wasn’t low either. I was having what doctors later informed me was a “mini-stroke”.

Afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the train station, I caught a cab waiting outside the office and went straight home. I took four panadol and went to bed, waking some hours later to hear my flatmate in the kitchen. I still wasn’t feeling any better and thinking that I had somehow been hit in the head I wanted to ask her to keep an eye on me for the next few hours. As I got up to tell her this I collapsed. My limbs weren’t working properly, my feet felt disconnected to my body and I couldn’t operate my left hand at all. Somehow I managed to stand and stumble down our hallway where my flatmate met me with a concerned expression. “I think I need to go to the hospital,” is what I intended to say. What came out instead was closer to “Iz finks ssz goess hoztal.” I couldn’t speak. My words were no more than slurs. Thankfully, realising something was seriously wrong, she drove me straight to the emergency department at RPA.

What followed was the most terrifying 24 hours of my life as doctors tried to determine what was wrong with me. CAT scans, blood tests, X-rays and even a spinal tap came back blank. It was the MRI that provided the key. It showed shading on the right side of my brain indicative of a stroke that would affect the left side of my body. Bingo.

That diagnosis was just the beginning of a bigger puzzle. As a non-drinker and a non-smoker who exercises regularly and has a normal diet, how exactly does one have a stroke? One doctor suggested that the purple dye I use to colour my hair may have seeped into my brain. He was joking . . . I think. The other theories explored ended up proving just as unlikely. An operation to get a better look at my heart proved conclusive: no problems there. The popular theory of it being a brain tumour was also disproved. In the week that I spent recovering in the stroke ward at RPA, one of the best in the country, I was even put in front of a think tank made up of minds from surrounding hospitals trying to determine just what caused a twenty something to have a “mini-stroke”.

They still don’t know what caused the stroke, although not for lack of trying. One theory is that it was a “migraineous stroke” – a migraine so intense it causes a stroke. Usually this would happen to someone who has a history of severe migraines, which I do not. The reality it is no matter how amazing the medical staff or how many future tests I undergo, they may never know. Which is utterly terrifying. It could happen again at any moment. Or I could live the rest of my life never experiencing anything close to that again. I’m hoping for the latter.

In the meantime, coming to terms with having a stroke at 23 has proved an entirely different and difficult feat in and of itself. Thankfully I’ve regained complete function of all my limbs. I have headaches most days, but that’s a small inconvenience compared to other stroke victims. What I have learned is that strokes aren’t something ‘that happens to grandparents’. Through hearing other peoples stories I’ve realised they happen to people of all ages, from all walks of life; children, teenagers, parents, and yes, grandparents. Unlike a Buffy villain, it’s not something that can be fought physically with wooden stakes and holy water. Like so many diseases and illnesses, the best way to fight a stroke is with awareness.

So donate a dollar, learn how you can help, or, perhaps more importantly, take a moment to read one of the stories from other survivors. Awareness is, as they say, key.

Join Maria in the fight against stroke here.