The morning started off like any other for 40-year-old Samantha Thurston, a professional assistant for a northern Colorado real-estate agent. As she showered, though, something about her felt odd.
“It was such a weird feeling that I can’t describe,” she said. “I had a jumbled song in my head. I couldn’t make it out. It was a bunch of words making no sense.”
Thurston had not long before read an article about strokes and she began a self- assessment. Her balance and vision were fine. Neither arm felt weak. She finished showering and headed to the vanity.
“I looked in the mirror and stuck my tongue out,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I having a stroke?’”
The stroke article Thurston had read stressed the importance of knowing stroke symptoms, especially the acronym FAST — Face, Arms, Speech, and Time.
She put on her robe and headed downstairs to talk to her nephew.
“I was trying to ask him if he had football practice that morning, but I couldn’t finish the sentence,” Thurston said.
She turned to her sister-in-law, Kindra. “I can’t, I can’t,” she kept saying her over and over. Nothing else would come out.
Slurred and jumbled speech is one of the signs of a stroke and only one sign of a stroke is needed to take action. Kindra, seeing the fear in her sister-in-law’s face, called 911.
Everyone should know stroke signs
After the age of 25, one in four people will experience a stroke in their lifetime.
“Stroke is more common in older people, but we are seeing an increase in the risk for much younger people now,” said Melinda Tafoya, stroke coordinator for UCHealth in northern Colorado. “It’s never too early to start looking at ways to decrease your risk of stroke.”
Thurston, like many parents of teenagers, was busy at the time running kids to friends’ houses and to after-school practices. She also worked part-time. A year earlier, she became more aware of stroke symptoms after experiencing dizziness. A CT scan showed spots on her brain. She was diagnosed with cavernous malformation, a congenital vascular problem that occurs in the brain and/or spine. These malformations are made of fragile arteries and veins that can leak small amounts of blood and cause large brain hemorrhages, i.e., hemorrhagic strokes.
Dial, don’t drive
The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to work well. If blood supply is stopped even for a short time, brain damage can occur. An estimated 1.9 million brain neurons die every minute that a stroke goes untreated.
Thurston’s sister did the right thing by calling 911 rather than trying to take her sister to the hospital, according to Tim Seidel, director of UCHealth Emergency Medical Services.
Paramedics are trained to recognize stroke symptoms and can alert the correct emergency room that a patient is coming.
Thurston was taken to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, a primary stroke center, in Fort Collins. A CT scan confirmed a stroke and an MRI showed that her cavernous malformation was not just a few spots but about 20 throughout her brain and brain stem. One had weakened and began to bleed in the area that affects speech.
The stroke team
When a stroke alert is called at these hospitals, a team comprised of a neurologist, an ER physician, stroke coordinator, pharmacist, nurses and technicians assembles immediately and meets the patient as they are taken straight to a CT scanner where a treatment decision can be made as quickly as possible, Tafoya said.
“I remember the tech holding my leg, telling me she was there and that I was going to be OK,” she said. “That was so comforting.”
Eventually Thurston’s body would absorb the accumulated blood in her brain, but she needed to be closely monitored in the ICU for any neurological changes. Brain swelling and increased intracranial pressure can cause further damage and seizures, and needs to be treated quickly.She was out of the hospital in just a few days and didn’t have any visible deficits from the stroke, but emotionally, she was hurting.
“I was scared it would happen again or take my life,” Thurston said.
Thurston’s condition will not go away, which means her risk of having another stroke won’t either.
“Regardless of your physical challenges after a stroke, the emotional piece is still there,” she said. “I had lost myself. I had let fear overcome me.”
Thurston began researching support groups and found one in Denver that helps younger stroke survivors. She attended a few times, but the commute was too much. So she decided to attend a local support group in Fort Collins. Although the members were older, she found that age didn’t matter much.
“Strokes are different for every person, and that can make people feel like they are the only one going through it,” Tafoya said. “Even though they are all different, there are a lot of things that are the same, and a support group provides that community that can relate to one another, sharing how they have adapted and learning how others have managed their new obstacles.”
UCHealth’s Life After Stroke Support Group meets monthly in Fort Collins and Loveland and is open to stroke survivors and caregivers. Each month, there is a set curriculum. Sessions begin with education followed by discussions for survivors and caregivers to talk about their unique challenges.
Getting more from the group
Out of that group, Thurston found a therapist to help her with anxiety and fears. Her husband was also instrumental in her recovery.
“He analyzes and rationalizes things, so when I’m having anxiety, he’s good at asking me to break down exactly what it is I’m afraid of,” she said. “I started to realize that everyone has something going on. I wanted to be present for my kids and my husband.
When UCHealth began to pilot a new program, SSTAR – Stroke Survivors Taking Aim at Recovery at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, Tafoya asked Thurston to participate.
SSTAR is a volunteer program in which stroke survivors meet one-on-one with patients and their families after they’ve experienced a stroke. UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs also offer the program.
Volunteers must be at least one year out from their stroke and willing to be good listeners and share their own stroke experience. Volunteers are trained in patient privacy.
Closing gaps, making connections
“This program is a great way to make a connection with these patients before they leave the hospital, and it is a good way to invite them into the support group,” Tafoya said.
Thurston, who had a stroke two years ago, introduces herself as Sam, a volunteer and stroke survivor, when she walks into a patient’s room.
“Really?” they always ask, surprised to see such a young stroke survivor.
She asks them how they are doing and if she can help them with anything. Almost immediately she can tell if the patient wants to be alone, but many times, patients want to talk.
“We talk about whatever they want to talk about,” she said. “Sometimes it’s about their event, sometimes they want to know my story, but sometimes they just want to talk to forget about the thought that they are here and had a stroke.”
Thurston cannot answer medical questions, but she can share her experiences as a stroke survivor. She encourages them to go to the support group.
Giving back what she can
“It’s encouraging to see someone who’s walked in your shoes,’’ she said.
After a stroke, Thurston said, it is important to have someone to talk to who understands and that’s what Thurston and three other stroke survivor volunteers provide.
“I see that fear. I remember being there. I want them to know they are not alone. I want to give them hope,” she said.