Like most of the world, I was stunned last month hearing the news that Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke revealed she suffered not one but two strokes in a bracing essay in the New Yorker. I felt particularly drawn to her essay not just being a fan of Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen’s perilous fight for the titular throne but because I also suffered a stroke at the relatively young age of 33.
I was so moved and inspired by Clarke’s vulnerability and honesty in sharing her struggle as well as the recent death of actor Luke Perry, that as I approached the 2-year anniversary of the stroke that has forever changed my life I realized that I had yet to share the story of what happened to me with others. Sure, there have been the friends, family members and colleagues who came to my aid with whom I have attempted to explain my experience but unless you’ve walked the path it’s incredibly hard to vocalize what a stroke does to a person — not just in a medical sense at the moment in question but in the lasting sense — the reverberating effects that ripple outwards through time — some taking months or even years to fully reveal themselves.
Friday, March 31, 2017, began as most Fridays do. However, this Friday morning which was usually a source of ebullient joy was punctuated by a searing headache. I awoke with a pounding pain behind my left eye unlike any I had ever felt. I almost instantly attributed this to the night before when I met my boyfriend, Derek, and our friends at Gracias Madre in West Hollywood for dinner. After eating dinner at the bar, we finished dinner which consisted of a few glasses of white wine and then headed home. So, naturally, I attributed this throbbing pain to the consequences of too much white wine and not enough water on a school night.
It wasn’t the first time I had awoken with a wine headache in my working life but I figured if I could just get to work, I could somehow make my way through the day armed with caffeine and greasy food as my power. After readying myself for work, I was overcome with a sense of general disorientation and dizziness. Enough, so I wisely thought “I shouldn’t be driving to work.” At one point, I even believed that I might be still slightly intoxicated from the evening before.
But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind because “I had work to do, and needed to get down to doing it.” so I could escape the work week unscathed and enjoy my weekend in peace.
After preparing for work, I decided it might be wise to call an Uber to ferry me to the office. The rest of the Uber ride to work was a bit of a mystery to me — the familiar sights of the Cahuenga pass and Hollywood & Highland — my usual route to work passed by in a fever dream-like haze of scenery I suddenly barely recognized. It was as if my soul was hitching a ride to work inside of the body of someone I barely knew — the familiar suddenly alien, gauzy and muted to me.
Upon arriving at work, I headed to my office where I figured I would close my door and hide out in a sort of healing isolation for the day. At the time, I was Director of Innovation for Warner Bros. Pictures and deeply involved in the marketing campaign for Wonder Woman as well as the forthcoming film A Star Is Born. Knowing that I was shouldering the burden of one of the most important marketing campaigns of my career, I willed myself through the throbbing temples into my daily routine. I proceeded to spend my day hidden from the bustling work world around me powering through cup after cup of bitter corporate-grade coffee from the office kitchen.
Once I had reached midday I felt it was time to call in reinforcements from The Focus Room — WB’s in-house office food delivery service. I ordered my usual favorite — a BLT with a Diet Coke thinking the mix of bread and caffeine would snap me out of the slump I currently found myself in. My order arrived and I powered through the lunch hour answering emails but the sense of detachment and unease I had felt on my commute earlier in the morning came creeping back in enough so that I had to admit to myself that I was not well — something that to anyone who knew me I was not ever readily available to admit. ‘Honor before duty’ and all that.
Faced with a clear meeting slate for the afternoon, I decided to bolt for the confines of home. Again, I used an Uber to get myself home — most of the way home filled with a sense of dread about the pounding in my head that would simply not go away. A nap and a good night’s sleep seemed like it would truly nip this in the bud and I would awaken on Saturday with the promise of the weekend ahead of me and a good night’s sleep at my back and everything would go back to ‘normal’ — but how little did I know that my sense of the word ‘normal’ was about to be completely upended.
Saturday, April 1, 2017 — Upon waking on Saturday morning I instantly knew something was wrong — I felt as if I was sleeping next to a complete stranger as my left arm had gone completely numb. I tried willing my arm to move but my limb felt like it belonged to someone else entirely. I tried lifting my hand with my opposite arm only to watch it limply fall back into place. My boyfriend Derek rolled over and looked at me and asked: “what is wrong with your face — are you having a stroke?” To which I said, “why would you ask that?” Again thinking that I was merely suffering the effects of a particularly long-lasting hangover.
He said that my face looked as if it was drooping to one side. I got up out of bed to see for myself but upon looking in the mirror I saw nothing off about my appearance — my face looked the way it has always looked to me- perfectly normal. I would later discover this is one of the great mysteries of a stroke — as it attacks the brain it also affects the part of the brain that processes perception of physical appearance.
Our Saturday plans were to attend the gym followed by brunch and pool time at our friend Josh’s pool — a not too atypical set of plans for a balmy April Saturday. I skipped the gym thinking that a few more hours on the couch was just what the doctor ordered — “I’ll catch up with everyone later,” I thought. Throughout my 20s, I had developed a particularly nasty habit of having one to two killer migraines each year. I suspected this might be one of those times and resigned myself to a couch-borne weekend filled with naps and copious Diet Cokes to will away the pain and the sickening feeling I had welling up from deep inside of me.
A few friends who I had missed that day had been texting about where to head out on the weekend and per usual I began texting back except with one noticeable difference — my responses were near gibberish — a mishmash of letters and punctuation compressed into a barely comprehensive missive.
Little did I know at a pool in West Hollywood, the conversation had focused on why I was not present. Derek mentioned to our friends that I woke up feeling terrible and described some of my symptoms — the drooping face, the limp arm and headache. Luckily one of our friends, Chris — an ER doctor recognized the signs of a stroke without even seeing me in person and within 15–20 minutes Derek was racing home to take me to the hospital despite my protestations that I was totally fine and just needed a nap and a Diet Coke. Going to the hospital was total overkill in my mind and the thought of giving up my already shot weekend to sit in an antiseptic prison reeking of cleaning solution and fluorescent lights was a less than palatable thought.
As a child who suffered from extreme allergies, I had gained a general terror of general medicine — the result of being poked and prodded endlessly with needles as a young child. I also had a fairly invasive surgery to repair a birth defect at the age of 13 which only furthered my fear and general avoidance of all-things-medical.
Upon arriving at Cedars Sinai Hospital, I was ushered through admissions fairly quickly — “ a record” I remember thinking even as it felt like my mind was melting down at an accelerated pace. Within minutes, I was on a gurney being inspected by flashlight-wielding nurses hurriedly flipping through charts and frantically calling out spur of the moment diagnoses to each other.
One of the nurses grabbed my left hand which at this point was fully numb. I knew from looking at her that she was holding my hand but in my mind, I didn’t recognize the limp limb she was holding onto. It could’ve been a mannequin’s hand for all I know. “Squeeze your hand for me” I remember her saying extremely close to my face. I closed my eyes tight and tried my hardest to will this phantom limb to move to no avail. I opened my eyes hoping to see a look of approval but instead, the nurse turned to her colleague and said “we have a blue alert” — cue the blue flashing sirens accompanied by a whooping sound whose urgency struck terror deep inside of me. This was like something out of a primetime TV medical drama in which I was suddenly the unwitting star.
Finally, somewhere in the parade of Nurses, one nurse approached with the news of what was actually happening to me. “So,” she says in a somber tone, “ we know what is going on with you,” followed by what felt like the world’s longest pause. “You’re having a stroke,” she said with deadpan honesty. I would later learn I was suffering from what is called an Ischemic Stroke which is one of the most common kinds of strokes (about 80% of strokes are Ischemic meaning the brain’s arteries become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow.)
Without thinking it was almost as if someone had activated my vehement denials mode as I began to protest “I’m not having a stroke, I’m too young to be having a stroke, my grandfather died of a stroke for Christ’s sake. I just have a migraine — all I need to do is have a Diet Coke and a nap.” After my litany of pleas went unanswered, I started begging to just go home, but the nurse remained unphased responding deadpan, “ I assure you that you are having a stroke and there’s no such thing as too young to have a stroke. And a Diet Coke and a nap might just kill you.” The last phrase landed in the pit of my stomach with the thud of a rock hitting the bottom of a deep chasm.
The nurse brigade began buzzing about taking me to “Interventional radiology” which, again sounded like another set piece in the medical drama of which I was suddenly the unwilling star. The whole way to Interventional Radiology through a labyrinthian maze of corridors and elevators seemed to take ages and somewhere along the way I was able to ask the nurses what would happen when I arrived at this Interventional Radiology. The nurse told me in a fairly deadpan manner, “Well, you’re going to have a radical thrombectomy” —a totally foreign phrase which I was about to discover the meaning of.
In a dimly-lit room I was hoisted onto a gurney where the aforementioned radical thrombectomy was to take place. I soon discovered that a radical thrombectomy consisted of inserting a metal wire into the groin, through my body and up into my brain where the wire was to breakdown and remove the clot applying pressure to my brain. The actual operation itself felt like it took a lifetime during which time I slipped in and out of consciousness before being told that the offending clot had been successfully broken down and removed. Within minutes of this good news, my formerly phantom hand regained movement and the pounding headache behind my eye began to subside.
After a short time in post-surgery recovery, I was moved to a permanent room to begin recovery and observation for the next few days while doctors performed a battery of tests and monitored the brain swelling.
Each morning, the nurses would wake me and ask me a series of standard questions which I would try to punctuate with humor, for instance:
“Do you know who the president is?” to which I would usually answer: “some orange asshole” or “Hillary Clinton, in my dreams.”
Thankfully most of the doctor’s long-term prognoses were fairly positive that I should be able to recover fully after physical therapy and a short leave of absence from work. “you’re going to be fine” one of the nurses told me “as long as you’re up to put in the work.”
And put in the work I did — following several months of physical therapy and some speech therapy I am happy to say that I successfully returned to work and more slowly began to feel “normal” again. Given that strokes affect the brain hemispherically —meaning offsetting one’s sense of balance — simple tasks like getting out of bed and even walking in a straight line require extra care and even a sense of re-learning. Like the uneasy feeling around the stroke itself, recovery was like getting used to being in a body I barely recognized but was slowly becoming reacquainted to. Imagine it as sort of Groundhog Day-like effect of arriving at a dinner party to which you weren’t invited.
It’s really hard to predict what can and can’t be affected by a stroke. More involved tasks like driving, which are restricted until the larger hemispherical issues subside, also take a bit of re-learning. Luckily I had a lot of muscle memory when it came to driving but not being behind a wheel for four months led to a sense of anxiety that took some getting used to.
I also was incredibly fortunate for my friends and boyfriend/now-fiance Derek who insisted I go to the hospital despite my assertions that going to the hospital was overreacting. In the end, their concern was life-saving as immediate treatment for a stroke can minimize the long-term effects of the stroke and can even help reduce the risk of death.
If there is anything one can learn from this article let it be this acronym:
FAST to remember and recognize the following signs and symptoms of stroke:
F: Face drooping. Ask the person to smile, and see if one side is drooping. One side of the face may also be numb, and the smile may appear uneven.
A: Arm weakness. Ask the person to raise both arms. Is there weakness or numbness on one side? One arm drifting downward is a sign of one-sided arm weakness.
S: Speech difficulty. People having a stroke may slur their speech or have trouble speaking at all. Speech may be incomprehensible. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence and look for any speech abnormality.
T: Time to call 9–1–1! If a person shows any of the symptoms above, even if the symptoms went away, call 9–1–1 and get the person to a hospital immediately.
I will have to keep a close eye on my condition with semi-regular scans and doctor’s appointments, but 2 years later I’m proud to say that I’m in the “clear”medically-speaking.
Overall, I am very fortunate that I did not lose the ability to talk, walk or remember names/faces/places — not everyone has it so easy. I’m not alone as strokes have begun affecting younger people increasingly.
A 2011 study in the Annals of Neurology found that the number of stroke patients under age 45 admitted to the hospital over a 12-year period from 1995 to 2008 had increased by about one-third and a study published in Neurology in 2012 noted a 56% increase in strokes among adults ages 20 to 45 in the Midwest between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.
To that end, I ask that everyone reading this considers donating to the American Heart Association which is currently fighting against the nation’s No. 1 and No. 5 killers: heart disease and stroke. Donations help fund lifesaving research, advocate for better health, improve patient care and reach at-risk populations.
So, in closing, to all my fellow stroke survivors who thought that they were “too young to have a stroke” both Emilia Clarke and I are living proof that after a stroke knocks you down, the only way to go is to rise. 2 years on I may not be the King of the Andals and the First Men or the Breaker of Chains just yet but I remain unbroken.