As Isabel Vinueza was being rushed to the hospital after experiencing sudden numbness in the right side of her body, blurry vision, and confusion, she thought to herself, “How dramatic.” Isabel was just 26 years old and not feeling any pain, didn’t think her bizarre symptoms were anything serious. She adamantly thought she just needed a nap. As soon as she entered the hospital, doctors diagnosed her with an ischemic stroke.
I found out about Isabel’s story while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed which is normally populated by puppy videos or engagement announcements. I was stunned as a health writer when I saw trending news about her, my high school friend, recounting her recovery from stroke. This health event was hitting too close to home and too close to my age. Why was a healthy, 26 year old having a stroke, and how could she come so close to missing the signs of something so serious?
About 800,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ischemic strokes, the kind that Isabel suffered from, account for 87 percent of all strokes with 15 percent of them happening in young adults and teens. Although stroke risk increases with age, they can occur at any age – in 2009, 34 percent of people hospitalized for stroke were younger than 65.
Acting fast is crucial for stroke survival and recovery, but because we don’t expect stroke to affect people in their 20s or 30s, often the early signs are missed in young people. When Isabel experienced sudden paralysis in her right hand and leg after trying to pick something up, she tried to shrug and laugh it off to her then boyfriend, now fiancé, Michael Sullivan, who would be the one to call 9-1-1 and save her life.
Isabel had classic symptoms of stroke – paralysis, droopy face, gargled speech, and general confusion. However, some women are not so lucky to be around people who recognize the classic symptoms – even less so if the symptoms are not classic. According to the 2015 version of the Scientific American White Papers, “women may experience different stroke symptoms than men, and they face risk factors that differ from their male counterparts’ or affect them disproportionately.” In fact, women account for more than half of new or recurrent strokes, and because they are more likely to have longer lifespans, the consequences of stroke affect them more significantly.
With the help of a new NASA-developed medical device, Solitaire (produced by Medtronic), doctors were able to retrieve the clot out of her leg quickly and effectively. Isabel’s recovery was described as “dramatic” by the doctors who treated her, saying she was “pretty much back to normal” after a couple days. Before Solitaire, the process of removing clots took more than an hour, with the removal not being entirely effective as some pieces of the clot remained. With the new device, developed by Medtronic, the process has been cut down to 20-30 minutes, allowing for a much more promising recovery outlook for patients.
Isabel’s stroke could’ve been caused by a number of factors – one of the most significant ones being, the hole in heart, referred to as a patent foramen ovale (PFO). This condition, along with the fact that she was taking birth control pills, which put women at greater risk for blood clots, could’ve caused her ischemic stroke. However, doctors couldn’t define a clear, single cause as Isabel was in otherwise great health.
Because Isabel never expected to be a stroke victim, she hopes her story can help others prevent or manage strokes, even if they don’t think they’re at risk. She recommends educating everyone around you about recognizing the symptoms of stroke and how crucial speed is in minimizing the damaging effects of stroke.
“I think that when you have a near-death experience, your outlook on life changes.” Isabel tells me. She now approaches every day as a gift – and while recovery has been a challenge she’s grateful to not have any major long-term disabilities. Michael seemed to feel the same way, when she recounts to me how he proposed: “He was like, ‘You know what, when you had the stroke, I just realized how precious life is and how I want to spend the rest of my life with you and I don’t want to wait any longer’”.
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Yumhee Park is a former content producer for HealthCentral.com.