Jeff Angileri
Sep 30, 2008, 11:29 AM

Looking at 25-year-old Jennifer you'd never think she could ever have a stroke. In fact, it was the farthest thing from her mind until this past winter.

"My coworkers say I began complaining about pain in my arm and then I was sick to my stomach," says Jennifer Ellis. "It's after this my speech began slurring and the right side of my face drooped."

What Jennifer experienced was a classic stroke. A blood clot blocked one of the arteries leading to the base of her brain - the part that controls vision. It's very similar to what happens in a heart attack only instead of heart muscle being damaged, the brain tissue begins to die.

"I never thought I'd be in this position," she says. "I'm only 25! It's not something you expect but you should be prepared for it."

Fortunately her coworkers suspected a stroke and made sure she got to the Dean & St. Mary's Stroke Center quickly.

"They got me to the hospital on time," says Ellis. "The doctors didn't expect me to make it, but my chances were better because I got there within 3 hours."

Three hours is the "golden" time period for treating a stroke. Recognize the symptoms and get someone in within that timeframe and chances are good they will suffer minimal damage.

"If someone gets to the ER within that three hours we have medication that can break up the clot," says Dr. Charles Miley, medical director of the Dean & St. Mary's Stroke Center.

The drug is so good that after three months, one third of all patients who received it suffer minimal to no effects of the stroke. Doctors say this treatment is the only real weapon they have to combat this debilitating disease.

"The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose and if that's obstructed those brain cells will die which is what happens in stroke," says Dr. Miley. "Time lost is brain lost."

That's why it's so important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke as quickly as possible. Look for numbness or weakness in an arm or one whole side of a body, sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, trouble seeing in one or both eyes, difficulty walking, or a severe headache with no real cause.

Ellis says she would've recognized those signs had she been alert. But she doesn't even remember going to work that day nor much of the days that followed.

"My family tells me I was in intensive care for four days and I don't remember any of that," she says. "When I did wake up I couldn't walk at all. And I had coordination problems with my left hand but that's better now."

Still Ellis doesn't feel as good as she once did. She has to focus more to do what she used to do and because of that spends much of her days battling fatigue. She says it's a struggle but one worth fighting.

"I have to relearn how to drive my car. I'm still learning how to keep my balance. There's a lot you have to relearn," she says. "Talking fortunately isn't hard but there are things I have to think about more."

Dr. Miley says unfortunately not all strokes can be prevented but as long as people are aware of their risk factors and cut down on unhealthy activities, the number could be greatly reduced.

"If people didn't smoke and if they had a normal blood pressure we'd have half the number of strokes," says Dr. Miley. "Other risk factors include diabetes, obesity and a family history."

Ellis says she's now very aware of her body and her risk factors. She makes sure to get regular check-ups at the doctor and constantly reminds her friends to eat a heart healthy diet and exercise.

"You need to watch out for yourself," she says.

Ellis now takes life one step at a time. She sets small but achievable goals each day. It may be laundry, the dishes or walking up stairs. Each one of these will ultimately help her achieve her dream.

"I want to go back to work, I want to drive and eventually stay out past ten o'clock again!" She says.

Stroke Stats

  • One person has a stroke in the U.S. every 45 seconds
  • Stroke is the number three killer in the U.S.
  • Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability
  • 14% of people who survive a stroke have another within a year

Risk Reduction

  • Watch your blood pressure
  • Quit smoking
  • Watch your weight
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day almost every day of the week
  • Keep diabetes under control

Stroke Prevention

  • Talk to your doctor to see if you're at risk
  • Control your risk factors
  • Recognize the warning signs: numbness, trouble speaking or walking, difficulty seeing, or a sudden headache
  • Call 911 at the first signs of a stroke

Did You Know?

Stroke is the number three killer in the U.S. affecting more than 100,000 African American individuals every year. Out of those that survive one stroke, 40 percent will have another within the next five years. It's important to realize your risk factors and know the symptoms.

Mini-Strokes: A Sign of Future Trouble

TIA stands for transient ischemic attack. It's also known as a "mini" stroke or a warning stroke. In a TIA, there is a temporary obstruction in a blood vessel which produces the typical warning signs of a stroke. Unlike a stroke, however, the obstruction does not remain in place and blood flow returns. While this may seem like a good thing, TIAs are often the red flags for a major stroke and those with these symptoms (slight numbness, slurred speech, difficulty seeing and a prolonged headache) should seek medical attention.

Call 911 If You Have:

  • Sudden numbness in your face, leg, arm or one side of your body
  • Trouble speaking, understanding or are confused
  • Difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking
  • A sudden, severe headache without a known cause