My ICU room

Stroke at 23

It’s an extremely scary word. Stroke.

When the doctor told me I had one, I couldn't believe it. There was no way I had a stroke at 23. That’s for old people right?

I was obviously wrong.

The day of the “event” I was fortunate enough to be walking with my mom. Oh, did I mention it was my older brother’s birthday? August 3rd, it was a Saturday morning. Anyways, we were about to spend the weekend in San Francisco for the first time as a family.

My mom and I were just getting back from dropping off Barkley at a doggy hotel for the night (that was the name of the kennel, I swear). On our way back we stopped at the bakery next to my apartment to pick up some breakfast sandwiches. Then we headed home. Parked. Starting walking from the garage to my apartment.

Before heading up the stairs, all of a sudden I dropped everything I was holding (a bag of bagels and a coffee). It was really weird because at that moment I felt fine, just lost my grip, no big deal right?

We continued up the stairs. Once I was on top of the stairs, I started feeling really hot and faintly. Which I felt before so I didn’t really worry about it. So I walked another 20-30 feet until I started collapsing.

While I was on the ground, my breathing was really loud in my head. It seemed like I could hear and feel exactly what was going on in my body. My ears over took my vision. It was that feeling when your under water and your senses open up, hearing your heart beat beating in your chest. The sound of my internal organs was deafening, almost like I had a 3rd ear. My mom’s panic voice seemed like a whisper. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t say “don’t worry, I’m fine”.

Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to realize everything that’s going on around you but not being able to say anything?

I remember everything from my mom, my dad, the ambulance and even the little old lady who lived in the apartment I fell next to. My entire right side was numb, my leg and arm were dead weight.

The ambulance immediately took me to the emergency room at El Camino Hospital. Once there, I had 2 Cats Scans and a very bold doctor who gave me the blood thinner (TPA) I needed to save my life.

I still couldn’t talk.

Around 12pm I was brought into the ICU and by that time I was able to say yes, no, and some noises. My right side didn’t completely get the feeling back until the next day. The Speech Therapist came in around 1:30pm to evaluate me. She started out asking me very simple questions that I couldn’t answer. It was that feeling when you’re trying to remember that actress in that one movie. That tip of the tongue feeling. But imagine that with your own life.

What is your name? When is your birthday? What is the month? Who is the president? What’s your moms name? Your dads?

After the speech therapist left, I broke down in tears. It was the first time I realized the seriousness of what happened to me.

In the room they had a laminated piece of paper that had 5 random words listed. The other side had pictures of objects. I stared at those words the entire day to try and come up with the sounds of letters.

I stared at those words for so long I still remember them.

Mama, tip-top, fifty-fifty, huckleberry, baseball player.

The rest of the day was a blur of drawing blood, taking blood pressure, and trying to learn to talk again.

By the time I was going to bed I could speak every word on the sheet, and even the objects. I was able to talk to my dad and (kind of) have a conversation.

The next day I had my MRI scan. I can’t say that was my favorite moment, especially being a little claustrophobic. Once the MRI scan was done, it was about an hour before the doctor came in.

ischemic stroke.

When the doctor told me I had one, I couldn’t believe it. There was no way I had a stoke at 23. That’s for people over 80 right?

I was obviously wrong.

So it turns out I was born with 3 holes in my heart where the blood clot passed through and went to my brain. The holes are on the wall that separates the right and left atrium. The problem is where the holes are, its a curved bowl shape instead of straight. So what was a simple procedure suddenly gets complicated.

I spent 4 days in the Hospital and I met some incredible nurses, brilliant doctors, and discovered my love for tapioca pudding. I remember the first time trying to write out the alphebet with my mom. It was as if I was learning it all over again. The sensation of not knowing how to write the letter A, is quite weirdly terrifying.

I had about a month of recovering my speech, word finding, and writing skills. A little after that, I was back to work part time and couldn’t be happier. Finally feeling like I’m normal again, going to meetings, playing with photoshop, and increasing my consumption of coffee.

Then I got a call from my Cardiologist.

I needed to have heart surgery to close the holes properly, so I don’t have to live life in fear of this happening again. The hospital stay was expected to be 5 days…Can you imagine how much tapioca I could eat in 5 days?

On the way out of the Surgeon’s office I spotted a poster advertising a 3 mile Heart and Stroke walk benefiting the American Heart Association. So the next day we did it. The coolest thing about being there was to feel for the first time that having a Stroke was okay, even celebrated. At the Survivor tent if you had a Stroke you got a white hat, and if you had Heart problems you got a red hat. It was really special to share this with my mom and dad.

My surgery kept on getting delayed because my Enzymes levels in my liver were really high. I had the same levels as people with Mano. So for a good 2 months I got blood drawn about 3 times a week. I went to the blood lab so much that I knew the nurses by name and their pets names. The time between hearing I’m going to have hearty surgery and actually having it, was very hard. It was such an emotional roller coaster. Every time after getting blood drawn waiting desperately for the email saying I had new lab results. Immediately rushing to go to Kaiser Iphone app to check the results. My heart racing so fast, I was losing my breath and shaking. Then to find out it only went from 230 to 215…when it had to be under 30. I want to get this surgery over with as soon as possible, so I can move on! The Doctors were so caring and reassured me that in the grand scheme of things a 3 month delay is nothing compared to the rest of my life. It was really hard to see that perspective at that time.

I’m 23!! I shouldn’t have to deal with this! I can’t work out or jog, or be a normal 23 year old. I feel in limbo (and without Leonardo DiCaprio). I’m not getting any stronger physically…and mentally, I could use some work. I refuse to feel at the mercy of this surgery. I need to have the discipline to embrace what has happened to me and get past it.

My surgery was at 7:30am on November 15th. I won’t go into details about the surgery because I really don’t know too much about the procedure. But I do know that the holes in my heart were much bigger than expected. 3 holes the size of quarters. The surgeon said he could see blood just going from the left atrium to the right atrium as if there wasn’t even a wall to separate the two. But its fixed! I’m home free. The recovery is much more painful than I was expecting, but the memories and the conversations I had with the nurses will never leave me. I got my fair share of Netflix shows. Tackled Mad Men, Scandal, and Tudors. I can’t wait to go back to my routine, going to work everyday, running in the morning, driving, going to the city on the weekends, etc. I’m so close to being back to my old self but forever changed.

When something like this happens in people’s lives, it so easy to fall into the “why me” mind set. I find myself falling in that state sometimes. I just to have remember that I’m the luckiest girl alive to have my mom, my dad, my brother, right by my side the whole time. The overwhelming support from my family, friends, and even coworkers has been truly inspiring.

(don’t mind my spelling and grammar errors, I had a stroke)

Like what you read? Give Lauren Kelly a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.