This is a topic I am all too familiar with. I recently suffered my first minor stroke at age 31 but was lucky enough not to have any residual effects left over from it. It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in my life; to imagine that an otherwise healthy person’s life can be taken away in an instant is terrifying. It all began when I was making my kids their lunch like I do any other day. While preparing it, I noticed a small black spot in my vision that lingered in the lower right hand corner of my visual field. Having a history of ophthalmic migraines and being an optometrist, I self-diagnosed myself as having yet another ophthalmic migraine or eye migraine which is a localized constriction of blood vessels in the head reducing blood flow to the eye temporarily, resulting in a visual distortion (source 1). I went about with my day without thinking much of it. About 10 minutes after I first noticed the spot, other strange things began happening. I was reading my son a book and all of a sudden my ability to read was turned off like a light switch. I could see the pages, the words and the letters but I couldn’t make sense of any of them. It was as if I was trying to read a foreign language. I called my husband to tell him what happened. I thought perhaps I had been poisoned, I must have touched a household cleaner or something toxic and inadvertently ingested it. What else could explain these ‘hallucinations?’
I decided I needed medical attention of some sort and accepted a family member’s offer to drive me to the doctor. I never made it into their car. While getting together my phone, my purse, a wave of nausea swept over me. I felt very dizzy. We called 911. While waiting for the ambulance, some of the more ‘classic’ symptoms of a stroke began. I began to slur my speech, I laid down as the right side of my face and right arm went completely numb. I couldn’t believe all of the things that were happening to me, at first I thought I was poisoned, then knew, all to well through my medical training, those classic symptoms of a stroke and what it meant. It was happening to me. But why? I don’t smoke, I don’t use birth control, I live an active life, I have no other medical conditions, I am healthy, I am young, I don’t do drugs, I hardly even drink. After many tests in the ER and at the hospital, it was found that I have a congenital heart defect called a PFO (patent foramen ovale) that I was completely unaware of.
A PFO is a hole or ‘door’ in the atrial septum, the wall that divides the left and right atrium (upper chambers of the heart). Everyone has this hole when in the womb but usually the hole closes shortly after birth. However, in 10-30% of people, it does not. (source 2) This defect in the atrial-septal wall can act as an open door for blood clots formed in the body to return back to the heart and go straight to the brain, instead of going through the normal filtration and reoxygenation system of the lungs. When a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain and stays there it is called an ischemic stroke. When a blood vessel bursts in the brain, it is called a hemorrhagic stroke. And when a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain temporarily and then ‘moves on’ it is called a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or mini-stroke (source 3). Having a TIA is a warning sign of a future stroke yet to come. (source 4).
It’s important to know the symptoms of a TIA to watch out for. Seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY if you have any of the following. It is impossible to know if what you are experiencing is a TIA, ischemic stroke or hemorrhagic stroke and proper medical intervention is absolutely needed to protect your health and your life.
SYMPTOMS OF a TIA (source 5):
- SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body.
- SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
- SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
- SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause.
Also, you can quickly screen for some common stroke symptoms by remembering FAST which stands for FACE ARMS SPEECH TIME.
F ace= Ask person to smile, does one side of their face droop?
A rms= Ask person to raise both arms straight out in front of them, does one arm drift downward?
S peech= Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, is their speech slurred? can he/she repeat the sentence correctly?
T ime= If the person shows any of these symptoms, it is TIME to act fast, call 911 immediately, get to the hospital fast. Brain cells are dying.
Forty-two days after I had my TIA, I chose to have PFO closure heart surgery. A device was implanted along my atrial septal wall to ‘close the door’ or hole in my heart for good. I find comfort in the fact that this pathway for a clot to travel is now closed and I am hoping to live the rest of my life, stroke-free.
I know this article may have been a little off topic but thank you for allowing me to share my experience with you. I feel that the more I get the word out about what happened to me, the better prepared others will be with the knowledge they may need someday to save the lives of themselves or their loved ones. It can happen to anyone so we all have to know what to watch out for in order to look out for one another.
I also found it interesting that changes in my vision were actually my first warning sign! That little black spot acted like a red flag to me to be on the lookout for any other changes to my body and once other symptoms kicked in, I knew I should take these warnings seriously, thank goodness I did. Vision is a very important part of your life, it can even help save it.
For more information about TIAS you can visit Talk About TIA.
You can also learn more or donate to the National Stroke Association on my personal page.
If you have recently had a TIA and would like to participate in a study to help develop an online questionaire so others can see if their symptoms might be a TIA, click here for the UCSF WebTIA Project.