What It’s Like to Have a Stroke at 39

When Susan Wahlmann felt cramping in her left leg, she chalked it up to all of the dancing she had done recently at two weddings and didn’t think anything of it. But a week after that, she began to have trouble breathing. She went to her doctor and was sent home with an inhaler, since the doctor assumed she had asthma. Since she was only 39 years old at the time and in good health, Wahlmann wasn’t too concerned.

All that changed a week later, when she got up to go to the bathroom at 5:30am and couldn’t feel her right leg and had trouble breathing. “Then I tried to speak but I couldn’t, so I had to jostle my husband to wake him up,” Wahlmann says. “He recognized the signs of stroke because his grandfather had had one, so he called 911. I could think and understand but I just couldn’t speak. Then my right arm went as well. I was literally paralyzed along the right side of my body.”

The ambulance arrived at her home and took her to the closest hospital, which was 10 minutes away. She was then airlifted to a hospital in Peoria, Ill., and then transferred back to her local hospital a week later near her home in Rock Island, Ill., where she spent another week. After two weeks total hospitalized, she was ready to go home.

However, Wahlmann still had work to do. Due to the stroke, she had aphasia, which is the loss of the ability to understand or speak, caused by brain damage. “As part of my outpatient therapy, I went to a speech therapist for a month,” she says. “She gave me exercises like smiling and then puckering up and relaxing, to exercise the mouth and to get my speech flowing again.” She also worked with a physical therapist and recreational therapist.

What made the biggest difference in Wahlmann’s recovery was that she was able to get medical attention so quickly after the stroke. “Luckily I got to the hospital in time to receive early treatment,” she says. “Because of that, I essentially recovered in about four and a half months. I could have ended up in a wheelchair or dead.” One of the most important things with strokes is that people recognize the symptoms immediately so that they can get professional help and alert the hospital. Then, time-sensitive treatments can be given, because once too much time passes, too much brain tissue dies, so it’s crucial to move quickly. Brain cells die every minute, so waiting 30 minutes for medical attention is very different than waiting four hours after a stroke.

“The stroke happened so quickly,” Wahlmann says. “I wasn’t overweight, I didn’t smoke, my blood pressure was fine, and I had no family history on either side. It was my birth control that caused the stroke. My husband posted that on my Facebook page, a friend in another town saw it and was on the same birth control and experienced the same symptoms and went to her doctor and went off it. The stroke symptoms are all over the web page now, but when I was put on the birth control it wasn’t listed.” That’s why it’s so important to do research on your birth control.  Strokes are occurring more and more in young people — stroke can happen to anyone at any age.

To get through her recovery, Wahlmann was dedicated to sticking with the plan her medical team recommended. Her family was also a huge help. “My daughter, Emma, was 9 at the time, and she always knew that I was going to get better,” Wahlmann says. “She had faith in me.” As part of her occupational therapy, she would play games like Jenga and Uno with Emma and her husband, Michael, to increase her dexterity.

“I was feeling back to normal immediately once I got back to the local hospital, but I was antsy,” Wahlmann says. “I wanted to get up and walk and do things and get back to my job, and I couldn’t do that. When I got home, due to the aphasia, I couldn’t express myself. I had to see another doctor and pass another test before I could get back to work.” She returned to her job four and a half months after the stroke, initially part time for the first month. “For the first month back at work, my brain was working but speech wasn’t, so I communicated via email and until I gradually could talk again.”

Eight years later, Wahlmann is grateful for her recovery. “I’m always learning, I’m always progressing, I’m always getting better, so have faith,” she says. “Stay positive — you can always get better. I hope by sharing my story I can spread awareness and people will learn to recognize the signs of stroke and call 911 immediately.”

These are the 10 signs and symptoms of stroke:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty understanding
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Numbness
  • Severe headache
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble walking
  • Vision changes
  • Weakness

If you or someone else experiences even just one or two of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. Learn more at strokeawareness.com.

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