Celebrating life after a stroke

We’re all invincible, right? We take for granted our journey through life. We try to stay on the road called normality, and even when we encounter pot holes and detour barriers along the way, as long as we’re wearing our superhero gear, nothing can touch us.

I write this from the unenviable perspective of someone who stepped off  normality road, and fell in a ditch. I passed through a portal and into a different world, a bit like Alice in Wonderland. And now I’m an addition to the ever increasing number of women each year who become stroke victims.

It happened on March 9th, 2014, the day before my 57th birthday, whilst house sitting in beautiful Toronto, Canada. It’s a birthday I won’t easily forget, and this year my gifts were things I never thought I’d receive.

Instead of celebrating as planned in a fancy restaurant, I spent my special day in intensive care in a specialist neurology hospital, which fortunately for me, is regarded as one of the very best facilities in Canada. I was treated to several CT scans and a rather unpleasant angiogram

There was no champagne for me, but I was treated to heavy duty doses of morphine, hydromorphone, nitro glycerine and oxycodone. This cocktail of drugs helped to keep the excruciating pain at bay, and at that time it was the best birthday present I’d ever received.

What exactly is a stroke?

Stroke is a type of cardiovascular disease which affects the crucial arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke happens when a blood vessel carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When this happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood (and oxygen) it needs, so depending on the severity, varying degrees of damage occur.

Signs that you may have suffered a Stroke

  • weakness on one side of the body
  • numbness of the face
  • unusual and severe headache
  • vision loss
  • numbness and tingling
  • unsteady walk.

In my case, I was literally feeling fine one moment, and the next I began to feel dizzy, disoriented and developed numbness and tingling first in my left arm, then eventually my leg.  The fact that I was walking down a main street in Toronto with my daughter at the time was both traumatic and a blessing, as she had the wherewithal to hail a cab, get me home, and then call an ambulance.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

I didn’t know it, and you may not either, but there are different types of strokes.  They can be caused either by a clot obstructing the flow of blood to the brain (ischemic strokes) or by a blood vessel rupturing and preventing blood flow to the brain (hemorrhagic or bleeding strokes). 

I had a hemorrhagic stroke, most likely caused by (undiagnosed) excessively high blood pressure, but the jury is still out on that. All they know is that my wiring went haywire.  

The Impact of a Stroke

The brain is an extremely complex organ that controls various body functions. If a stroke occurs and blood flow can’t reach the region that controls a particular body function, then that part of the body won’t work as it should.  Strokes can cause paralysis, affect language and vision, and cause other problems.

The effects of a stroke depend on several factors, including the location of the obstruction and how much brain tissue is affected. However, because one side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, a stroke affecting one side will result in neurological complications on the side of the body it affects. For example, if the stroke occurs in the brain’s right side, then the left side of the body will be affected, which could produce any or all of the following:

  • Paralysis on the left side of the body  
  • Vision problems     
  • Memory loss

Fortunately for me, while the bleed occurred on the right side, I experienced none of the damage listed above, except for a slight weakness, or ‘spatial disconnect’ in the left hand and leg. My usual klutz-like tendencies are a little more pronounced, in that I forget I’m holding something in my left hand…so I drop things. And sometimes I find I need to concentrate harder when stepping up on a footpath or uneven surface as my left leg tends to lag, and I trip. Friends and family say nothing’s changed really, and I’m a constant source of mirth and amusement as I bang into doorways, walls and people with my left shoulder. You have to laugh… right?

In my job as a writer, obviously I depend on both hands to work in tandem to produce my lightning fast typing speed, but the frustrating legacy of the brain bleed is that I’m not as quick as I was.  However, as with the other abnormalities, they’re a nuisance, but they continue to improve every day (and thank goodness for spell-check!). Practice and drills, exercises and constant awareness, not to mention a cocktail of fierce determination and optimism… shaken but not stirred are all helping enormously. I’d like to think that I’ll be back to normal in a few weeks.

I really do consider myself lucky. It could have been much, much worse.

For many people, a stroke is life-changing. It can be deadly. However, it’s also preventable. Being aware that you are at increased risk for stroke can allow you to lower any controllable risk factors and decrease your chances of ever becoming a statistic. And speaking of statistics, here are some from the trusted ABS:

  • About 381,400 Australians suffered a stroke in 2009.
  • 264,900, or 69 percent of stroke sufferers were ages 65 or older
  • 45% of stroke sufferers were female.
  • Stroke killed 11,220 Australians in 2010.
  • 59.8% of stroke deaths are among females.
  • The most common impairment among people who suffered a stroke was difficulty completing physical activities.
  • The next most common impairments among stroke sufferers were using arms and fingers, feet and legs, and holding objects.
  • Impaired Australians who suffered a stroke were also more likely to report more long-term health conditions compared to those who were not impaired by a stroke.

8 Ways to Address the controllable risk factors of suffering a stroke:

1. Monitor your blood pressure

High blood pressure is a huge factor, doubling or even quadrupling your stroke risk if it is not controlled. Monitoring blood pressure regularly is essential, and if it’s elevated, treating it is probably the biggest difference women can make to their vascular health.W

  • Reduce the salt in your diet to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about a half teaspoon).
  • Avoid high-cholesterol foods, such as burgers, cheese, and ice cream.
  • Eat 4 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day, fish two to three times a week, and several daily servings of whole grains and low-fat dairy.
  • Get more exercise—at least 30 minutes of activity a day, and more, if possible.
  • Quit smoking, if you smoke.

2.  Lose weight

Obesity, as well as the complications linked to it (including high blood pressure and diabetes), raises your odds of having a stroke. If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can have a real impact on your stroke risk.

  • Limit or avoid saturated and trans fats.
  • Try to eat no more than 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day (depending on your activity level and your current body mass index).
  • Increase the amount of exercise you do with such activities as walking, golfing, or playing tennis, and by making activity part of every single day.

3.  Exercise more

Exercise contributes to losing weight and lowering blood pressure, but it also stands on its own as an independent stroke reducer. One 2012 study found that women who walked three hours a week were less likely to have a stroke than women who didn’t walk.W

  • Take a walk around your neighborhood every morning after breakfast.
  • When you exercise, reach the level at which you’re breathing hard, but you can still talk.
  • Take the stairs instead of an elevator when you can.
  • If you don’t have 30 consecutive minutes to exercise, break it up into 10- to 15-minute sessions a few times each day.

4.  Drink—in moderation

What you’ve heard is true. Drinking can make you less likely to have a stroke. Hold it right there and wipe that grin off your face. Studies show that if you have about one drink per day, your risk may be lower, but once you start drinking more than two drinks per day, your risk goes up very sharply.W

  • Have one glass of alcohol a day.
  • Make red wine your first choice, because it contains resveratrol, which is thought to protect the heart and brain. Alternatively, take a resveratrol supplement each day.
  • Watch your portion sizes. A standard-sized drink is a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer, or 1.5-ounce glass of hard liquor.

5.  Take a baby aspirin

Research has shown that women over age 65 who take a daily baby aspirin lower their stroke risk. Aspirin helps by preventing blood clots from forming. But talk to your doctor first to make sure it’s safe to do so.

6.  Be aware of atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a form of irregular heartbeat that causes clots to form in the heart. Those clots can then travel to the brain, producing a stroke. Atrial fibrillation carries almost a five-fold risk of stroke, and should be taken seriously.

  • If you have symptoms such as heart palpitations or shortness of breath, see your doctor for an exam.
  • You may need to take blood thinners such as high-dose aspirin or Warfarin to reduce your stroke risk from atrial fibrillation. Your doctors can guide you through this treatment.

7. Get checked regularly for diabetes

Having high blood sugar over time damages blood vessels, making clots more likely to form inside them. Monitor your blood sugar as directed by your doctor. And you’d be wise to use diet, exercise, and medicines to keep your blood sugar within the recommended range.

8.  Quit smoking

If you smoke, it accelerates clot formation in a couple of different ways. It thickens your blood, and it increases the amount of plaque buildup in the arteries. Along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, smoking cessation is one of the most powerful lifestyle changes that will help you reduce your stroke risk significantly.

  • Ask your doctor for advice on the most appropriate way for you to quit.
  • Use quit-smoking aids, such as nicotine pills or patches, counseling, or medicine.
  • Don’t give up. Most smokers take several tries to quit. See each failed attempt as bringing you one step closer to successfully beating the habit.

A stroke is certainly not the end of the world for most people, and from a personal point of view, it has given me a much-needed wakeup call about taking better care of my health in the future. We women are often far too busy taking care of others to pay attention to ourselves. This could be a costly mistake when you realise that it’s those you take care of who have the most to lose if something happens to you.

This travel-junkie and lover of life will most likely be taking blood pressure medication for the rest of her days – but that’s a very small price to pay for beating the odds and getting another chance at living it to the max!

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