The cost of always putting yourself last

Ask Kim how she became a Go Red ambassador, and you’ll be shocked to learn her credential was a stroke. The slim, poised blond betrays little of the stroke that rocked her world in 2014.
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Her journey began on an April night, when after only 90 minutes of sleep, Kim was awake and restless. Frustrated at her inability to doze off, she headed downstairs to the kitchen. She encountered there every mom’s frustration: a sink full of dirty dishes.

“Honestly, I was peeved and started talking to myself. That’s when I noticed my words were slurred.” Kim says she knew immediately what was happening. A look in the bathroom mirror sealed the deal; the left side of her face was drooping.

She was a week shy of her 47th birthday. “All I thought was, I’m too young, and this isn’t a good time for this to happen.”

The odyssey that followed provides lessons in self-advocacy. Rousing her husband, John, from sleep (“I knew when I woke him, it would make things real”), they raced to a nearby hospital. Her blood pressure was “out of control” and her heart rate was 130.

Turns out, the blood pressure and heart rate had wakened her, and were the symptoms of stroke. But it would be hours before anybody called it that. An early CT scan will often not indicate stroke; hers didn’t. By 4 a.m., the hospital prepared to send her home, chalking it up to Bells Palsy.

“My husband said no. He told them my dad died of a stroke. We put our foot down and became our own advocates,” Kim recalls.

That act possibly saved her life. She was admitted, and an MRI was scheduled for hours hence. Again, her husband intervened, and she got an immediate test, stroke was revealed, and the hospital jumped to.

But the initial delay of several hours had a long-term impact. Because her ischemic stroke occurred as she was sleeping, Kim now knows she had a three-hour window for TPA – tissue plasminogen activators – to be administered and start thinning blood clots. Ignoring her insistence of stroke, they missed the window. As a result, some of her recovery was slowed, and may never be complete.

Kim believes her age caused ER personnel “to blow it off” when she suggested stroke. She also wonders about gender, because studies have shown women in some ER’s receive less palliative care and diagnostic testing than men.

In the hospital for two days, she worked with an occupational therapist for a month.  She lost 40 pounds in six months.

And she found external support. Soon after her stoke, Kim discovered a young stroke survivor’s group. Attending her first meeting, she discovered, “I’m not that young, in fact, I’m one of the oldest in the group. To realize I am not alone was huge.”

Buoyed by the knowledge that other young, vital people could be laid low, she reached out to the American Heart Association. She was invited to volunteer with the Go Red campaign, and to share her story.

She learned that she’d been ignoring symptoms for a long time. Despite seeing her father die of a stroke in 2012, she’d been too busy to focus on her own symptoms. She had experienced worsening migraines and “crazy” blood pressure, but chalked it up to simultaneously planning a wedding and high school graduation.

The good news is she has not had a headache since her stroke. Lifestyle changes – quitting caffeine, ceasing to take birth control pills and paying attention to her body’s signals – all pay off.

Kim also notes that depression is common, and is a constant concern. She says the person most affected has been her husband. “He worries about me constantly. But at the same time, it brought us so much closer.”

“But my biggest message to other women is to be your own advocate. Know your body. Know when something is wrong. Don’t ignore it. You must go to your doctor. Tell them everything and be perfectly honest.

“Women do for everyone else, all the time,” she concludes. “But if you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be here to take care of others.”

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