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Carol G.

June 23, 2015

I am ... A Survivor

It began with the headaches that initially felt like the flutter of butterfly wings on the left side of my temple; gradually escalating to what I suspect it must feel like to have that little penguin from the movie, Happy Feet tap dancing in my head. Self-diagnosing, I attributed them to problems with my sinuses due to the barometric pressure of Atlanta’s fickle winter temperatures.

Self-medicating with Tylenol for a couple days I also threw in a few M&Ms – well for good measure. When nothing worked, I made an appointment with my doctor.  Nothing prepared me for the diagnosis. Stroke! Or more specifically, a (TIA) transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke. According to my doctor, a TIA occurs when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery, and part of the brain doesn't get the blood it needs. The symptoms occur rapidly, and most last less than five minutes. Unlike a stroke, when a TIA is over, there is no injury to the brain. As a person can experience a TIA and often not know it, thus not get immediate medical treatment, makes it all the more dangerous.

At the hospital, doctors performed a number of tests. There, I was fitted with a portable heart monitor that was worn underneath loose fitting tunics 24/7 for a week. During that time, there was a lot of movement under my clothing. Alas, none of it could be described as foreplay. 

Of all the “conditions” what my late father called his ‘age-onset’ illnesses, heart disease, high blood pressures, diabetes, or gout, that I was susceptible to, at my age (early fifties at the time) a stroke wasn’t something ever considered. True, African Americans are more prone to strokes than other races. Likewise, weight also played a role. Admittedly, my once “brick house” figure, you know 36-24-36, what the 70s R&B group, The Commodores, once described as a “winning hand,” had over the years morphed into a “mansion” — complete with a carport. Still, before my TIA episode I’d grudgingly committed to an exercise program that included walking.

Initially, suffering a TIA left me overwhelmed with a tsunami of emotions. Suddenly, it felt as my chest caught in some kind of vise, making it difficult to breathe. Was I also having a heart attack, I wondered? Likewise, my emotions packed a four-fold whammy, disbelief, denial, anger, before gradually, acceptance.

Disbelief. I really couldn’t have had a stroke. Didn’t strokes happen to folks much older?  Denial. A TIA or any kind of stroke wasn’t supposed to happen to someone whom others said looked younger than her actual age, despite that one chin hair that kept returning even after plucking with extra-strength tweezers. The same one that recently returned, but returned gray— and with an entourage; all of them suddenly taking up residence underneath my chin.

Anger.  Strokes weren’t supposed to happen to someone whom after several careers, including twenty years in the military, had finally realized a life-long dream of becoming a published author. It was all so unfair!

In truth, my emotions swung like a pendulum: one day swinging one way; the next, swinging in a totally opposite direction.  Admittedly, for a few days included a pity party for one — complete with party hat. While internally, there was a dance between disbelief and denial: a sort of complex two-step where each tried aggressively to lead.

Acceptance, when it finally came, was subtle. With it also came this warm, soothing balm. It was if a switch had been flicked on in my brain. Suddenly, everything was illuminated. You know— it happened. Now what? It’s the same feeling that I have felt after weathering many of life’s challenging times.

Still, surviving a TIA made me realize three things: the first being that strokes do not discriminate by age. According to my research, a TIA can strike a person at any age. While not common, they have been reported in people in their twenties, even thirties. Likewise, strokes do not discriminate between gender or class. Strokes don’t care whether you are politically aware or even politically correct. Secondly, a health scare causes you to focus on what is important. For me, it was things like a marriage that has spanned four decades, which in itself with frequent military moves, and my spouse’s myriad chronic health challenges over the years, has been no small feat.

Finally, if nothing else, suffering a TIA made me aware of my immortality. Although, it wasn’t until my mortality flashed before my eyes came the realization of how much I actually had to lose: things like my mobility, my ability to speak, to think and my ability to write. Thus, I now feel more self-protective of my dreams.

With this realization, a newly profound peace came over me that was all-encompassing. Every nuclei in my cells reverberated with sensation: to the point that I’m happier than ever before. . While I can’t truthfully say I love exercising, joining a fitness center close to my home, and doing both cardio and strength training exercises admittedly leaves me feeling rejuvenated in both body and soul.

Am I afraid experiencing another TIA or someday even a full-blown stroke? After all, those who suffer a TIA can suffer others as well as a stroke. However, I won’t allow fear to immobilize me, I have too much I want, no, make that have to do. Today, upon recalling the diagnosis that forever changed my life, I believe Edward Teller, the renowned physicist and author in his quote about faith applies here. You know, “When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: Either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught to fly. “                        

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