Written by Kimberly Johnston
I always believed that strokes only affect the elderly.
My father had a stroke which led to his death. He was almost 70 years old, and though he wasn’t overweight, his diet consisted mainly of high fat and carbs and he had been a heavy smoker all of his life. While I was devastated, I wasn’t very surprised.
Years later I got married. In lieu of table favours, we made a donation to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in my father’s honour. While he couldn’t give me away, it felt as though he was there in some way. I forgot about strokes.
Then in 2014, at age 42, everything changed.
I had a stroke.
We didn’t know the signs. At first, I thought I just wasn’t feeling well. The right half of my body started to tingle, then went numb, then fully limp. Then heavy vertigo set in. We called 911. I was rushed to the hospital where we learned what had happened to me.
After a week of monitoring in the ICU that I can barely remember, I was transferred to the Toronto Rehab Centre. There, I would spend the next 3 weeks learning to walk and use my right hand again.
It was slow, repetitive and daunting work. And exhausting; I had never imagined such complete exhaustion. At times it felt impossible and I never would have made it through if it weren’t for the support I received.
At the first mealtime I got into my wheelchair and rolled slowly toward the communal dining room. I was taken aback at the number of people in the room, knowing we were all there for the same reason.
I was puzzled to be met by so many surprised faces until it donned on me: the youngest person in the room was 65 years old, most were between 70 and 80 — I was as young as (or younger than) some of these people’s children. Perhaps for this very reason, I was quickly invited to join a beaming table of women who would soon become an essential part of my daily support team.
That's me on the left.
We were a group of unlikely but tight friends, chatting over meals, making jokes and listening to each other’s horror stories of how strokes had changed our lives. We each had our own unique deficiencies to work on and I got to know everyone’s very well; Denise had double vision and was unable to use her left hand; Vera’s face was numb and her smile, now lopsided, often substituted numbers for words.
After a week of very hard work I no longer required a wheelchair. I entered the dining hall on my own, upright with a walker. I’ll never forget the room of smiling faces as they applauded and told me how proud they were.
“I thought you’d be taller” joked Denise.
“Stop 2-3-4-6!” Barked Vera, slapping her on the arm. She used some colourful words when she didn’t confuse them with numbers. We all just laughed.
Throughout my stay, both residents and their family members would constantly express surprise that I could have a stroke so young. They had so many questions: How could this happen? What caused it? Is it common? I would just smile and agree that it was odd. It’s all I could tell them.
Each week I celebrated my own progress and the achievements of my fellow survivors. We all worked hard. When friends were released, it was bittersweet: a happy moment, but I knew I would miss them. And I couldn’t wait to be home with my own family.
Finally, a full month after my stroke, I was well enough to go home.
Before leaving, I had lunch with the remaining members of my little group of friends.These were some of the most brave, strong and inspiring women I have ever met and I will never forget them. I continued my rehab as an outpatient at a different location for several months. Eventually, I graduated from a walker to a cane to no longer needing any aid at all.
I was one of the lucky ones who not only survived a stroke but didn’t have too many lifelong effects. Life got back to normal and the stroke faded into a past chapter of my life. I got comfortable with the ‘anomaly’ that was my stroke.
Until it happened again last year.
This time, we knew the signs so we caught it early.
Once again I got lucky, but now my life has changed; I’ve altered my lifestyle, career and work-life balance; I de-stress, live in the moment and focus on kindness.
I’ve learned that strokes can affect anyone — not just the elderly.
Someone in my online stroke survivor community summed it up perfectly:
“If you have a brain, you can have a stroke."
February is Heart Month here in Canada. Strokes can happen at any age and sometimes we can’t even know the cause. But catching it early can save a life. Learn the signs for yourself and your loved ones — of any age.
Use FAST To Remember The Warning Signs Of A Stroke
FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately. Time is critical.