At 24 years old, I never saw this coming.
About three months ago, I was standing in my kitchen making dinner when my vision went blurry. My heart was pounding. I had intense chest pain. My knees buckled. Suddenly my left arm and left leg went numb. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t feel my fingers and toes.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What is happening to me?Ã¢â‚¬Â I wondered. I had just worked three 20-hour days back-to-back, so clearly I was exhausted. But I had never felt this strange sensation before. I figured I was just extremely sleep-deprived and that this was my bodyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s way of telling me to slow down. That sounded about rightÃ¢â‚¬”between taking five classes a week for my Psy.D. in clinical health psychology, working two demanding therapy jobs at different hospitals, and writing a dissertation, I was lucky to get four hours of sleep a night. Still, I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong.
I made my way over to the living room and got myself to lie down on the couch. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember how I managed to move there since everything around me was a blur. To make matters worse, I live alone and had no idea where my phone was, so I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t call anyone for help. I rested for about 15 minutes, and the sensation and pain finally subsided. Ironically, my next thought was that I had work the next morning, so I should head to bed. I probably just needed a good nightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sleep anyway, I thought.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“That Could Never Happen to MeÃ¢â‚¬Â
The following morning, I woke up feeling disoriented. I sucked it up and went to work. This is just how IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always been: extremely motivated and driven, with a tendency to push myself to the limit. Throughout the day, I felt nauseous, woozy, and not like myself. My left arm and leg still felt really weak. Once again, something just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t feel right. I called my physician to see if I should make a trip into the office, and I rattled off my symptoms to the nurse over the phone. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You need to go to the ER right now,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It sounds like you had a mini-stroke.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In complete disbelief, I laughed at the idea. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yeah, right,Ã¢â‚¬Â I thought. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no way I had a mini-stroke. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m healthy. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m young. That could never happen to me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Still, I decided to go to the ER after workÃ¢â‚¬”just in case. I was shocked when the doctor asked me to stay overnight to run a few tests. Turns out, mini-strokes are possible at any age.
TIA, or transient ischemic attack, is the medical term for a mini-stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, a mini-stroke is more of a Ã¢â‚¬Å“warning strokeÃ¢â‚¬ÂÃ¢â‚¬”a warning that should be taken very seriously. Having one is usually a precursor to experiencing an actual stroke weeks or even months later. A TIA is typically caused by a blood clot, but unlike a stroke, the blockage and symptoms are temporary and last only a short time. The thing is, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no way of predicting whether symptoms are from a TIA or an actual stroke, so getting to the ER immediately is crucial. Luckily, when I finally made it to the hospital, my tests all came back normal. If it had been a stroke, rather than a TIA, the CT scan and MRI would have detected permanent damage.
Since I never made it to the ER the night of my episode, it was difficult for doctors to pinpoint what caused it. The thing is, I really didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think I was at a high risk of TIA and stroke. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a family history of blood clots or stroke. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take birth control, smoke, or drink heavily. However, I do have a personal history of heart problems, including a heart murmur and tachycardia (a faster than normal heart rate). Of course, sleep deprivation was a major factor. That, combined with high stress, not eating right, not exercising very often, and a history of heart issues, most likely led to my TIA, according to the doctors.
The physicians at the hospital gave me some aspirin to take every other day to keep my blood from clotting and essentially told me to slow down. After following up with a cardiologist and a neurologist, I was told that I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to stay on medication, but I did need to make time for myself and for sleep.
The Reality Check
Can you say wake-up call? IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always considered myself a healthy girl. I was a dancer for 20 years and worked out on a regular basis. But then I started grad school. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when I swapped healthy food and daily workouts for constant stress and lack of sleep. Mind you, I still try my best to work out on a regular basis and eat healthy most of the time, but logging more than 15-hour days at school and work doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t leave muchÃ¢â‚¬”if anyÃ¢â‚¬”time to take care of myself. Ready for irony? As a therapist and consultative psychology liaison at the hospital, I always tell my clients to make time for their own self-care. I guess itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time to start practicing what I preach.
The most important thing I learned from this scare is that you have to make time for yourself. No matter how busy you are, even if it means blocking off time in your Google calendar, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s absolutely vital for your wellbeing. You only have one body; you have to take care of it. The biggest takeaway I have for women is to always listen to your body and seek medical attention if something seems off, even if you think youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re probably OK. Especially for all of the likeminded career women who swear itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s impossible to miss a day of workÃ¢â‚¬”I promise you, your health is more important!
For more information on TIAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, check out The American Stroke Association and The National Stroke Association.
Sarah Silverman is a third-year Psy.D. student studying clinical health psychology at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She plans to one day open a private practice specializing in sleep disorders and insomnia, as well as provide consultative psychological services to businesses, medical offices, and hospitals.