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A New Life After TIA
By Verna Noel Jones
Being caught with her pants down was not where Donna James wanted to be, especially when suddenly confronted with the paralyzing symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or mini-stroke. Yet that was exactly what happened to the then 48-year-old corporate executive of Nationwide Strategic Investments on Jan. 21, 2005. In the same year, she was named one of the Top 75 Most Powerful Blacks in Corporate America.
That morning, James felt unusually tired and groggy when she awoke. As she headed to the bathroom, she kept bumping into the walls. She found she couldn't open the door with her right hand.
“It was sort of comical,” she says. But when she used her left hand on the handle it opened easily. She went in and sat down.
“Then I tried to grasp the roll of toilet paper with my right hand,” she recalls. “It felt like a club. The paper was billowing to the floor because my right hand was flailing against the roll.”
James felt sick and flushed. She tried to stand but her legs wouldn't work and she collapsed to the floor. That's where her husband Larry found her — laying on her right side, unable to turn over.
“He was panicked and asked me what was wrong. I tried to say, 'I don't know.' I could hear the words in my head but nothing was coming out of my mouth. I couldn't talk. I wasn't afraid, just confused about what was wrong with me. I tried to smile to reassure my husband, but he said later that he could see something was wrong with my smile.”
Alarmed, her husband told her he was calling 911.
“I was sort of relieved, but then I realized my PJs were around my knees and I needed some decorum. So while he was on the phone, I took my good left hand and managed to get my pants up before the paramedics arrived,” she says with a chuckle.
After several tests were conducted in the ER, James was told she'd had a TIA and now was at risk for a full-blown stroke. “I was shocked; stunned,” she says. “I said, 'That's impossible. I'm not overweight and never have been. I've never had high blood pressure. My cholesterol was in the 180s.'” As far as she knew, there hadn't been a history of stroke in her family.
Though James' speech returned and the paralysis went away within the next few hours, she saw the TIA as a major wakeup call. Until that fateful day, James had led a hard-charging life running five different financial services out of Columbus, Ohio for
Nationwide. Her responsibilities included a mortgage banking company and an international annuities and pensions operation.
The stress levels were “high high high,” and the hours “long long long,” she admits. “I knew I was stressed, but I've always been stressed. It was what I considered normal stress. I felt like I was handling everything. Though I did spend most of my time on the job, it was a job I loved dearly. I loved the excitement, the challenge, the diversity.”
But when push came to shove, she respected what her body was trying to tell her. Doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause of her TIA, but said that job stress may have contributed. So after the TIA, “I decided to change my lifestyle. I retired from my 25-year career at Nationwide and now run at a pace I'm comfortable with around things that are really important to me.”
According to James, the decision to slow down her life was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. “I did not expect to make this choice so soon. But the good news has been that I've identified a life that I never knew could exist by stepping away.”
Today, James stays engaged in business by serving on three corporate boards, and she speaks to business and youth groups. She has created a consulting company to help entrepreneurs with startup businesses. And as a former single teenage mother, she also runs a nonprofit called The Center for Healthy Families, which works with pregnant and parenting teens in Columbus. She now works about 25 to 30 hours a week, a much healthier schedule.
Her health habits are better as well. She's become a Pilates devotee. (Before the TIA she never really exercised because — at 5'10” and 118 pounds — she felt that she didn't need to because she didn't have a weight problem.) James also watches what she eats. “I read labels. I cook with low-fat oils and use low-cholesterol butter. I eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean meat and fish.”
In addition, she's alert to physical changes that could signal a big problem.
“I've learned that good health is really inside out, not outside in and that, as a woman, you can't make the same assumptions about health that we do with men. It's different,” she says. “It's possible there were signs of this coming and I didn't recognize them because I didn't know what to look for. I'm paying attention to little things now.”
James' TIA was a wakeup call to the people around her as well. “They look at me and say, 'Donna, you were always the epitome of health, so if it could happen to you….”
Now James is doing her part to make sure that everyone around her knows what can be done to reduce stroke risk. And though she still stays busy, she definitely has made some important lifestyle changes that have improved her health as well.
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