Mama Mayhem

Just a stroke of bad luck

By Ivy Jensen

ONE in four people globally will have a stroke in their lifetime.

This was a statistic I never would have believed. Until I had one.

At the age of 29.

Last week was National Stroke Week and I should have written my column to coincide with it.

But I forgot. Something that happens quite a lot.

Memory loss can be a side effect of stroke, so I’ll blame it on that.

It was about June of 2007, a few months after I had given birth to my firstborn daughter, Ayla.

I had also recently returned from a safari in South Africa, where I had done a lot of flying within three weeks.

I had just come home from dinner at a friend’s house and was lying down on the couch watching Harry Potter (I don’t know how I remember this because I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff since).

Anyway, all of a sudden, I felt a rush of vertigo and fell off the couch.

You know that feeling when you’ve had too much to drink and you lie down and the room starts spinning? It was like that, but 100 times worse.

I tried to stand up but I kept falling to the left. And then the nausea started.

I went straight to Echuca hospital emergency department where doctors tried to understand what was happening to me.

Eventually, they sent me home with a gastro diagnosis and a Stemetil prescription for the vertigo.

Four days later, I was still unable to get out of bed and the dizziness had not subsided.

I decided to go to my doctor, which I should have done immediately.

He ordered a CT scan and within a few hours, he was telling me I had a shadow on the brain and I was on my way to the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Later that day, and in somewhat of a daze, specialists were telling me I had suffered a stroke.

All that flying I had done had created a blood clot in my leg and it travelled all the way to my heart and here’s where it gets interesting.

Turns out, unbeknownst to me or my parents, I had a small hole in my heart which did not fully close after I was born.

Which is not as rare as you might think.

During pregnancy, this hole allows blood to bypass the fetal lungs and deliver oxygen to the unborn baby's heart and brain. The small opening, between the left and right chambers, usually closes on its own within a few months after birth.

But in about one in four babies, it never does.

Most of those babies will be fine, and will live their lives not even knowing it.

But for some, the defect can prove dangerous, as it did for me.

Doctors immediately put me on blood thinners, delivered by injection through my stomach.

I have always had a fear of needles or anything piercing my skin, so this was not my favourite activity.

By the end of the week, I looked like I had been punched in the stomach the bruising was so intense.

I spent about a week in hospital, having every test under the sun – scans, blood tests, neurology assessments, physio – before they let me go home.

By then, the vertigo had gone and I was lucky enough not to be suffering from any significant side effects.

Over the next six months, I remained on the blood thinner Warfarin while having weekly blood tests to ensure I was on the correct dose to keep me from bleeding or making clots.

Which meant I was being pricked and prodded daily. More fun for me.

About six months after my stroke, my cardiologist closed the hole in my heart during an remarkable 90-minute operation known as a cardiac catheterization.

It involved inserting a catheter into a large vein through my groin and slowly moving the long, thin, flexible, hollow tube into the heart.

A small device, which looks like an umbrella, is then implanted into the small opening between the two upper chambers of the heart and, voila, the hole is closed. Quite amazing really.

But scary as all hell at the time.

I was a first-time mother of a one-year-old and all I was thinking was ‘what if I don’t wake up from this?’

There were obvious risks with the procedure and while I knew I had no other choice, the worst scenarios filled my head.

It was a terrifying thought and I will never forget cuddling Ayla that little bit harder (not knowing if it would be the last time), before they wheeled me into surgery, tears pouring down my face.

Waking up a couple of hours later was a huge relief and the news it had been a successful operation even more so.

I had lived to fight another day. Well, another 13 years anyway and hopefully many more.

Despite my ordeal, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Unlike many stroke survivors, who lose their ability to walk and talk and still suffer paralysis, numbness and fatigue years later, I was fortunate enough to only have minor side effects.

My balance has been affected and I’m no longer the co-ordinated dancer I used to be. I can’t even go on a swing without feeling ill.

While I have not been diagnosed with aphasia, which affects your ability to express and understand written and spoken language, I occasionally suffer from the symptoms as well as memory loss.

I sometimes forget words, and experience that frustration of trying to communicate a word or thought that is on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t get it out.

Being a journalist, where words are my life, this has been the most difficult part to deal with.

Yet, when I look at other stroke survivors, like Echuca’s Adrian Hansen who I interviewed last week (and you can find his story on page 3), I feel like I have nothing to complain about.

Adrian had to learn how to walk and talk again, which took many years of determination and willpower. Yet, despite this overwhelming challenge, he never gave up.

Why didn’t this happen to me? Maybe because I was younger, maybe because my stroke affected a different part of my brain, or maybe it was just luck.

Whatever the case, it just goes to shows that every stroke is different.

None of the more than 56,000 strokes experienced by Australians this year will be the same.

However, some of the signs of stroke will be.

The Stroke Foundation recommends the F.A.S.T. test as an easy way to remember the most common signs of stroke.

Face: Check their face. Has their mouth drooped?
Arms: Can they lift both arms?
Speech: Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you?
Time Is critical: If you see any of these signs call 000 immediately.

And that’s the message Adrian, and I, want to get across.

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