“One of the Scariest Days of My Life: the Day I Suffered a Stroke at Work.”

By Nakia L. Cooper

My anniversary is approaching. But not the one that people usually celebrate. It is not the anniversary of a walk down the aisle, a walk across a stage or some other grand rite of passage. It is the anniversary of one of the scariest days of my life. The day I suffered a stroke – at work.

“Ms. Kick Butt and Take Names,” a leader in the newsroom and a force to be reckoned with; I prided myself in saying so. People looked at me like a superwoman and my cape was fabulous. A placard on my desk actually read “Fabulous is a full-time job,” which is so fitting for the persona I had developed.

Oh, but even a superwoman’s cape can’t keep you soaring high when your body is ready to crash and burn. And that is exactly what happened.

Five days after my birthday, I was in my office, the first day after returning to work from having the flu. I was playing catch-up on all my backed-up emails when, all of a sudden, I forced a hard cough to dislodge phlegm from my chest and my vision went blurry.

Listening to My Inner Voice

It was 1 p.m. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day and I thought maybe my blurred vision was associated with my hunger. But my mind told me, “Girlfriend, we have a problem. Let’s go.”

I listened to that inner voice and asked one of my employees to drive me to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. Upon check-in, I told the admitting staff that I believed I was suffering a stroke. To be honest, I didn’t think I was, but the minute I said the word “stroke,” my inner voice kicked in again and said, “Girlfriend, you are.”

I underwent several rounds of testing, including an MRI, before a doctor returned to tell me, “Ms. Cooper, you’ve suffered a stroke.”

Over the next three days, I was visited by specialists and physical therapists who kept saying how strong I was. I had no risk factors for stroke. No high blood pressure, no diabetes. My heart appeared to be strong – with tests to prove it. I wasn’t exhibiting any signs of suffering a stroke. I was balanced, everything in my face was perfectly symmetric and they even took me walking up and down flights of hospital stairs, in which I hopped, skipped and jumped effortlessly to prove a point that surely their diagnosis must be wrong.

I was given referrals for follow-ups with specialists, but the answers didn’t come easy. I met with multiple specialists, went through rounds and rounds of testing with no definitive answer.  That was especially hard for me, as a journalist, to digest. It was like I was an enigma. 

My cardiologist, Sanjay Maniar, MD, outfitted me with a heart monitor for 30 days. At the end, the readings showed my ticker was beating just fine, but I broke down crying and told him that I knew something was wrong with my heart. He did something miraculous at that time: he let me yap on and on and he patiently listened.

I had been telling people since I was in the fifth grade that my heart was “beating funny” sometimes. In 2012, my cardiologist diagnosed me with mitral valve prolapse, where the valve between the heart’s upper and lower chambers doesn’t close properly. I was told to watch my caffeine intake and make other small adjustments. When I changed cardiologists in 2014, I had no signs of mitral valve prolapse. She told me I was perfectly normal.

But here we were years later, a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy woman in her early 40s and I had a stroke, which miraculously disappeared off an MRI, and a heart that was “beautiful” according to tests.

A Prisoner Inside My Own Head

So what was wrong with me? Emotionally, everything. In the three months following my stroke, I became a prisoner inside my own head. With no one being able to tell me why I suffered the stroke, I was terrified that it would strike again.

I stopped driving on the freeway at night, afraid that I would have a stroke and would cause an accident with my kids in the car. I was in the final semester of college obtaining my master’s degree, but considered dropping out because I was terrified to drive to my night school classes. I confessed what I was going through to my professors, who allowed me to complete my courses online.

I kept my diagnosis a secret from my employer, afraid they would deem me a weak link and I pushed myself through work, closing my office door several times a day to just cry my heart out. Crying became the norm for me.

Dr. Maniar said, “I have a hunch about something, but I’ll need to put you to sleep and take a look at your heart from the inside.”

I said, “Let’s do it!” I was tired of the mystery.

Mystery Solved

Dr. Maniar performed a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) and discovered a hole in my heart, a patent foramen ovale (PFO), something I had been born with. He connected me with Richard Smalling, MD, an interventional cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), who made the connection between an “unexplained stroke” and PFOs.

Having a PFO increases stroke risk. Finally, I had an answer! solution? A PFO closure.

As it was explained to me, what could have happened that fateful day was when I coughed hard the blood went through the hole in my heart in the wrong direction, clotted and shot up to my right occipital lobe, which controls the left field of vision, blurring it. That chain of events was more of a blessing than a curse. It led me to Dr. Maniar, who led me to Dr. Smalling.

Dr. Smalling used a catheter-based procedure to go up through a vein in my groin area to patch up the hole in my heart in less than an hour.  I was awake the entire time and I was released from the hospital the next day.

A Reason for Celebration

One month after my surgery, I strutted across that stage in my highest heels and got my master’s in digital media communication. My children were by my side every step of the way.

So you know what? I do have a reason to celebrate. It’s my anniversary of being happy, healthy and armed with the answers that I need.

Keep yapping, find a doctor who will listen and listen to that inner voice leading you in the right direction.

Learn more about the conditions treated by physicians affiliated with Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute or schedule an appointment with a cardiologist near you.

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Ali Vise