Kirsten H.

Photo of Kirsten H.

I am … a Survivor.

My name is Kirsten Hutchinson and I currently live in Fairbanks, Alaska. At approximately 10pm on Saturday, February 4, 2017, I suffered an acute left cerebellar stroke. Another description would be: a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) due to occlusion of vertebral artery. I was 27 years old.

At the time of my stroke, I was out with my boyfriend and our two friends on a dogsled adventure, driving my own team of eight dogs. Out on the trail, sometime after 9pm, I started to feel a little bit of a headache. I figured that it was because I was tired or dehydrated, and I knew we were not going much farther, so I was not worried. I suddenly began to feel very hot. I stopped my team, removed my jacket, drank some water, and continued on the trail. It was at this point that I believe the stroke occurred. I lost my balance, falling to the side of the sled and into some deep snow. I felt nauseated, hot, had an intense headache, and was having trouble getting back to my feet. The friend who had been mushing behind me pulled up beside me to help me up. After getting to my feet, I had to walk around his dog team to get to mine further along the trail, and I began to have a sinking feeling that something was really wrong. I felt as though I was suddenly extremely intoxicated, and after struggling past the dogs, I fell to my knees in the middle of the trail. My friends anchored their teams and came to see what was wrong with me. I had no idea what was wrong and all I could say was that I felt really terrible, but didn’t know what I needed. Any movement caused me to immediately vomit. I was totally physically incapacitated.

Seeing my condition, my friends opted to set up their winter tent for the night so I could rest. My boyfriend made a little place for me to lie down, and carried me to it while they tended to the dogs and set up camp. All I could imagine at that time was that I had somehow come down with a serious case of food poisoning. I know now that my condition was because the part of my brain that had been affected by the stroke was the part of my brain that controls balance and coordination (my cerebellum). Basically, I was having motion sickness anytime I would try to move. My boyfriend later moved me to the tent, where we all stayed for the night. All through the night and into the morning, my head throbbed and I would be sick (or dry-heave) any time I tried to move. By approximately 11am, I began asking to be “rescued”. As terrible as I felt about abandoning my team and friends, I knew that I would not be able to continue on with this adventure.

Luckily, the place we were camped was quite close to a road my mother was familiar with, so she was able to pick me up within an hour.  At this point I thought my headache was a result of dehydration from vomiting, and that I had some sort of 24hr “bug”. I went home with my mom, and slept there for a few hours. Although I was still nauseated and vomiting, I was able to move around. I seemed to be improving. I stayed at my mom’s house that night, still dealing with a throbbing headache and hardly getting any sleep. In the morning, I asked for an ibuprofen, and was able to fall asleep. I woke up shortly thereafter, as the intensity of my headache returned. I knew that it was not good to have such a terrible headache for an extended period of time, and as I do not normally get migraine headaches,etc. this felt unusual for me. My mother returned from work to bring me to the ER.

After explaining the situation, the ER nurse suggested that I had suffered a concussion from hitting my head. I insisted that no such thing had happened, and she eventually admitted me to get a CT scan. On Monday, February 6, I was admitted to the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital ICU due to a Stroke.

On February 8, my headache began to worsen and a new MRI showed the development of acute hydrocephalus. I was given a diuretic medication called Mannitol as treatment. Normally if fluid build-up persists, a neurosurgeon must put a shunt in the brain which drains to the stomach. As there is no neurosurgeon in Fairbanks, I was transferred via private jet to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage for neurosurgical evaluation. The medivac crew was absolutely fantastic.  Luckily, when the neurosurgeon met me in Anchorage in the middle of the night in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, it was NOT to take me to the OR. Fortunately, I did not need any neurosurgical intervention. The Mannitol had been enough. I was monitored carefully over the next several days, and finally discharged on February 12th.

Although I did initially have deficits, I am improving every day. In fact, I feel very much like myself and I am working towards making a wonderful, beautiful, miraculous, full recovery. A neurologist causally mentioned to me that it is almost as though I have survived a lightning strike. Either I am “really lucky, or really unlucky”.

To this day, no one has been able to explain why this happened to me, and they have not been able to tell me confidently whether it is likely to happen again. I did have a follow-up MRA scan in May 2017, which showed that my vertebral artery had re-opened and was functioning normally. I hope someday I will be able to meet with a neurologist who can offer a more conclusive analysis of this event in my life, but for now I just have to keep moving forward and living my recovery. I wish I could give some eloquent insight about having had a traumatic experience…. but the truth is that as I am writing this, all I can think about is how beautiful and precious life is, and how grateful I am for it. I don’t know if I feel “lucky”, but I do know that I feel deeply moved and incredibly grateful. Hold your life and your loved ones close, dear humans.