Although many believe they happen only to the elderly, they hit people in their prime, too.
Ask Lenice Hogan. Or Kim Nelson. Or Aimee Messerschmidt. All three had strokes in their late 20s or early 30s. All three have kids. All three care about fitness. Headed by Hogan, they plan to start a support group for young stroke victims.
Messerschmidt had her stroke about seven weeks ago. Meeting Hogan and Nelson meant a great deal to her. They got together over lunch last month.
“They've just given me so much hope,” Messerschmidt said last week.
The backing of family and friends is crucial, they say, but there's nothing like talking to someone who has lived through the terror of stroke, and the ongoing fear that every tingle and twitch might signal another.
“Can you imagine the anguish and fear that it causes in your life?” asked Dr. Pierre Fayad, a University of Nebraska Medical Center neurology professor and chairman of the American Stroke Association advisory committee.
Many young stroke victims have children to care for and lives packed with duties and appointments. They wonder what will happen to their careers. They're scared of dying.
“All of a sudden, they're different,” said Dr. Shirley Blanchard, a Creighton University associate professor in occupational therapy. “Depression is a huge issue.”
Blanchard, whose doctorate is in health promotion and health education, said some stroke victims feel isolated. That's why groups made up of others who have been through it are valuable.
The American Heart Association estimates that among women 20 to 39 years of age, one in about 165 will suffer a stroke. The risk isn't as great for young men.
Strokes generally occur when a blood vessel, which carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain, is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When either happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs and starts to die.
Experts say risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, some anti-inflammatory medicines, birth-control pills, cocaine, inherited vein abnormalities, heart defects, hyper-extension of the neck, significant weightlifting and other factors. Blanchard summed it up: “We all have the potential to have a stroke.”
May is Stroke Awareness Month, but every day is about stroke awareness for those who have suffered one.
“I just have to accept it and live with it,” Hogan said. “It affects me every day, all day long.”
Hogan knows her left foot will never be the same. The toes don't flex the way those on her right do.
She's open about what her strokes have wrought balance problems, constipation, diminished flexibility, weakness in the left leg, trouble digging certain words out of her brain. She points to a pen and says there are times she can't remember what it's called.
Hogan, now 44, had her first of three strokes in 1992 and her last in 2005, caused by a vein abnormality in the brain. People talk about the physical aspects of stroke, but the emotional effects -- fear of another -- can be suffocating, she said.
Nevertheless, she made a bold decision last year. The Omaha stay-at-home mother of three boys committed to participating in the New York Marathon last November to raise money for stroke research. A few weeks before the race, she felt a flood of anxiety. She told her mother she was afraid she'd have a stroke while running it. Her mother, conservative by nature, told her she could have a stroke whether she ran the marathon or not. Hogan ran. She finished in a little more than five hours, in about 36,200th place.
“I never hit the wall,” Hogan said. “It was a completely amazing experience.”
She knows there are support groups for stroke survivors, but she wanted something that helped younger people in particular. She started one on Facebook a couple of months ago and has had hits from Canada, Georgia, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Now she wants to get one going for younger stroke survivors in the area.
“I can't let stroke take more of my life away from me than it already has,” she said. “Why should I let it stop me from doing anything?”
She saw her stroke diagnosis as a death certificate.
And there was so much to do work, get her bachelor's degree, raise her baby girl and two little boys, grow old her with her husband.
“I was angry,” Nelson said. It seemed like a dream, a nightmare. She had just exercised and set down a basket of laundry. She turned to speak to her husband.
“And what came out of my mouth was just jibber-jabber,” Nelson, now 33, recalled of her stroke, which took place in November 2008.
She dismissed it as one of her migraines. She lay down, then headed for her job in information technology at the Nebraska Medical Center. Over the next three days, her condition declined. She bumped a curb driving her car. She had speech problems. Her primary care physician ordered an MRI, and that's when she learned she'd had a stroke.
Nelson, of Council Bluffs, has a small hole in her heart. Perhaps that caused her stroke. Nobody knows for sure. She was on guard for months, with every odd sensation scaring her. That has diminished, but she thinks about her stroke every day.
Physically, she said, she's doing well. Meeting Lenice Hogan has been terrific for her emotionally. Hogan's been there and come a long way.
The threesome first met for lunch in April. Nelson saw Aimee Messerschmidt's fear, her trembling hands. “And it was like I was looking in the mirror at myself a year ago,” Nelson said. “She'll get better. ... I want to help her get there.”
Her husband thought she was dying. He said goodbye to her.
Messerschmidt's condition had steadily declined, and doctors put her in a medically induced coma to try to gain control.
Just two nights earlier, in late March, she had been lifting weights in an Omaha gym. She started to get on the stair climber and saw spots, felt like blacking out. Then there was a pulsating, whooshing sound in her right ear. She went home and went to bed.
The alarm clock went off the next morning. She tried to tap it with her right hand and couldn't move her arm. Messerschmidt, of Missouri Valley, Iowa, went to the hospital in Blair, Neb. Her vision was blurry and she became disoriented. Doctors transferred her to Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha and eventually helicoptered her to the Nebraska Medical Center for a rare surgery. A torn neck vein, the left carotid artery, had caused the stroke. The blood couldn't make it through the vein to the brain. It escaped through the tear and seeped back into the artery's lining, making the artery expand and cut off more blood flow. She was in critical condition.
In a three-hour surgery, Dr. Daniel Surdell placed a shunt, or small metal tube, into the artery to open it and reinforce the torn wall. She started to bounce back quickly.
The insurance underwriter has improved. The crying jags aren't as frequent. Sometimes it takes her a while to remember names. She's started taking slow, mile-long walks. She looks good. She says what Surdell did for her is a miracle, and she's going to lean on Hogan and Nelson for emotional support.
She received good news a few days ago. Surdell cleared her to lift her two little girls again.
Contact the writer: