Growing up on a farm in northern Illinois, Cassie Perry participated in beauty pageants, joined the debate team and enjoyed competitive horseback riding. After college, she was a cheerleader for the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League. Later, she helmed several small businesses, most recently her own Pure Barre fitness studio outside Indianapolis.
"When I get an idea, I go for it," Perry said.
Being so driven helped make Perry feel invincible. Until her 39th birthday.
After putting to bed her three children, Perry and her fiancé, Jared Firebaugh, sat down to watch a movie. Perry reached for the remote control and her left arm went numb. She sat up with a start, and the numbness went down her entire left side, "like somebody pulled a string," she said.
Although Perry had long struggled with migraines with aura and tingling in the extremities, this felt different. She immediately thought of another former Colts cheerleader, Tessa David, who had a stroke at a young age. Terrified, Perry asked Firebaugh to drive her to the hospital.
"Had I been alone, I don't know what I would have done," Perry said, noting that Firebaugh had rescheduled a work trip so they could celebrate her birthday together.
As Jared raced to the hospital, Perry's thought turned to her children. What if she could no longer care for them? What if she never held them again? She bargained with God.
"If I get through this, I'll be a better mom, I'll be an advocate," Perry told herself. "I'll do things differently."
An MRI revealed a clot on the right side of her brain. Fortunately, her symptoms rapidly improved. Doctors decided against administering a drug that breaks up blood clots. Four days later, she was released.
"Younger, healthier people are going to recover better and more quickly from strokes," said Dr. Jeffrey W. Hilburn, her neurologist in Indianapolis.
When someone Perry's age has a stroke, there is often an unusual cause, Hilburn said, and that was indeed her case. Tests revealed she had a hole between the two upper chambers in her heart called a patent foramen ovale.
All babies are born this way, but it usually closes shortly after birth. Perry's did not. When she developed a blood clot, it escaped through the hole and traveled to her brain.
Doctors referred her to a cardiologist for a consultation about implanting a device to close the hole in her heart. She was in the process of scheduling the appointment when, two weeks later, she began to feel unsteady and spilled her breakfast.
This time, she called an ambulance. At the hospital, doctors told her she had suffered a mini-stroke. Four months later, the hole was fixed.
"There's no reason to think that she'll ever have another stroke," Hilburn said.
Since then, Perry's life has returned to normal, but she has made a conscious effort to slow down and reduce stress. She spends more time with her children and Firebaugh's three children, and she accepts help from friends and family. She even takes a nap now and again.
Living up to the commitment that she made on the way to the emergency room, Perry has also become an advocate for stroke and heart disease awareness, sharing her experience with college students and participating in a fashion show for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women gala in Indianapolis.
According to Perry, many people are surprised to learn a young, physically fit person could suffer a stroke. Her experience shows it can happen to anyone.
"When in doubt, check it out," Perry said. "If sharing my story saves one life, it'll have been more worth it to go through this experience."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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