‘I Thought I Had A Pinched Nerve. But It Turned Out I Had A Stroke In My Sleep’

The day after Thanksgiving in 2010, I woke up with no feeling in my right leg and a headache. I was a 24-year-old graduate student working on my master’s degree in English at the time. That morning, my husband had already left for work across town, so I tried not to worry too much and figured my leg was just asleep. I went about my day as I would any other Black Friday: cleaning up around the house, looking for deals online, and shopping with my husband in the evening when he got home.

The next morning, I woke up with the same numbness in my leg and a lingering headache. Again, these seemed like minor annoyances that would just go away on their own (and honestly, I didn’t want to have to pay a $100 co-pay at the ER if my leg was just asleep). As I tried to work on my thesis for grad school, though, everything on the screen seemed like a jumbled mess. Even the physical act of typing was becoming difficult—I couldn’t think of words or even how to spell simple phrases.

That Monday, I drove myself to work without any feeling in my foot. It was the scariest and most nerve-racking drive I’ve ever done in my life. I could not feel the pedal and constantly had to watch the speedometer.

When I finally arrived at the office, I knew I had to get help.

I rushed in and called my primary care doctor. They told me to go to the ER immediately. I started panicking and called my husband to come and pick me up. When we arrived at the ER, the medical team asked us a bunch of questions and ran a slew of tests including a spinal tap, CT and MRI scans, doppler ultrasounds, and more. After over a week under watch at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, I left with no diagnosis.

A week or so later, in early December, I had an appointment with my neurologist. Instead of meeting in the typical exam room, he sat my husband and me down in his office. He told us that I’d had a cryptogenic ischemic stroke. As he explained, this meant that a blood clot in an artery in my brain had caused a blockage in blood flow. But the exact reason why I’d had a stroke—and at such a young age—was unknown.

For the next two months, I was out of work and had to go to physical therapy for my leg every week. Over time, I regained enough feeling in my leg to return to work and life as normal. I started driving again, hanging out with friends, and going to the gym. Nearly two years later, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. I felt great and I was happy to be alive.

Michelle with her daughter, Anna
Courtesy

Less than half a year later, I was struck with an all-too-familiar headache at work.

It was May 3, 2013, and my left arm went completely limp and started cycling between total numbness and throbbing pain. It felt like every nerve was on fire and then, nothing. At that point, I was aware enough to understand that I was having symptoms of a stroke.

I called my husband and he drove me to the ER. When we arrived, we were taken into an exam room almost instantly. A day later, my doctor confirmed that I had indeed had a second stroke. I’d had an embolic stroke in my cerebral artery (which happens when a blood clot in another part of your body breaks loose and travels to your brain).

This was a big deal. I lost my ability to communicate clearly, a common symptom of brain injury due to strokes known as aphasia. For well over a week, I stayed at the hospital and began working with the speech and physical therapy team in an attempt to regain my ability to speak and move my arm.

“I was flooded with anger, depression, denial, and pain.”

I cannot explain how heart-breaking it is to be unable to tell your six-month-old child, “I love you.” I can’t tell you how angry I am that I don’t have any recordings of me singing songs to her as she grew up. My daughter would never hear my real voice, the way I spoke before my second stroke.

Over time, I regained my ability to speak somewhat normally, but the doctors told me I’d never be able to feel anything with my left hand again. I’d never again get to feel my fingers run through my husband’s big, bushy beard, and I’d be lucky if I didn’t injure or burn my arm because of the loss of sensation.

I went home feeling absolutely defeated. A few days later, I visited my primary care doctor for a follow-up appointment, and I completely broke down in front of him. Being the amazing human that he was, he gave me a big hug and said that he was on my team and would be there to help me get through it. He sent me home with a prescription for a blood thinner to reduce my risk of having another stroke.

Michelle and her husband
Courtesy

From then on, my entire life revolved around my condition, even though I still didn’t understand why I’d had multiple strokes at a young age.

My balance, speech, arm, and brain were so messed up after my second stroke that I spiraled through the five stages of grief. I was flooded with anger, depression, denial, and pain. I couldn’t drive, go to work, or even vacuum my own home. I couldn’t enjoy my daughter’s first year of life as a healthy young mom would, and I felt like a burden to my husband.

Before I did anything, I had to ask myself: Can I do this safely? Although I still had no answer as to why I’d had the strokes, I had to quit working and file for long-term disability.

Michelle (left) before her first stroke in 2010.
Courtesy

In January 2019, I made the personal decision to get weight-loss surgery. And in a surprising turn of events, we finally figured out the big mystery behind my strokes and health.

I started the application process for bariatric weight-loss surgery known as vertical sleeve gastronomy (VSG). Because of my stroke history, this meant more testing. As my doctor reviewed my files and ran more blood work, a pattern emerged: My platelet counts (the blood cells involved in clotting) were through the roof, even after I was put on a blood thinner.

Amazingly, nearly a decade after my first stroke, I was finally diagnosed with thrombocytosis, a blood clotting disease. Basically, this means that my body is just really great at clotting because it produces far too many platelets. As such, I’m on blood thinners for life.

While I still have a higher stroke risk compared to the average healthy woman, I’m working hard to become the best version of myself I can be. Just last year, I went through with my weight-loss surgery, and I’ve lost over 120 pounds since. Today, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction, and I cannot wait to see what my future brings.

My main takeaway from this experience is that you have to be thankful for every day and take your health seriously.

If I hadn’t gone through these struggles, I’d be a completely different person. Before these trials, I took every second for granted. Now, I use my time wisely. I make it a point to spend a few extra minutes snuggling with my daughter at bedtime, and I give my husband an extra kiss before he leaves for work.

I think it’s often easy to take our health for granted, especially as young women. Looking back, I put off going to the ER for an entire weekend just because I didn’t want to deal with a co-pay or miss work. I was so focused on my immediate financial situation that I didn’t think about my long-term well-being. Take it from me: Your health is more important than anything, and because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, make the most of today.

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