Michelle Black’s memories surrounding the events of Feb. 28, 2017, are piecemeal: a hand filled with crumpled tissue and an inability to fully explain to her husband, Matthew, what she was doing with it; a sharp pain on the right side of her head, just above her eye; being led back to her bedroom to lie down while Matthew dialed 911.
What continued to unfold was a morning routine tainted by something that would seem unfathomable to many people Michelle’s age: The 38-year-old wife, teacher, and mother of three was having a stroke.
When medics arrived to her Newburg home, they quickly evaluated Michelle, taking her vitals, asking her to smile, and instructing her to lift her left arm and leg. Michelle was exhibiting tell-tale signs of stroke and soon was placed in an ambulance. The countdown to begin treatment as quickly as possible—and limit permanent damage to her brain—began.
“In the ambulance, I remember hearing them calling ahead to Chambersburg Hospital that they were bringing in a 38-year-old female stroke victim,” says Michelle. “In my head, I was thinking ‘This isn’t right. I can’t be having a stroke because I’m only 38. I don’t smoke or drink.’” In addition, she had just started a new hobby—running.
“Many younger adults don’t think of stroke as something that could affect them, at least not until they’re much older,” says Dr. Sanjay Dhar, medical director of WellSpan Summit Health’s stroke program. “Unfortunately, no age is immune to stroke. Lifestyle, stress, and other factors are contributing to stroke in younger people.”
Once at Chambersburg Hospital, emergency physicians conferred with a WellSpan neurologist via teleconference and determined the best course of action would be to treat Michelle with tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, a clot-dissolving treatment given intravenously. After tPA, Michelle would need to be airlifted to York, where a neurosurgeon would remove what remained of the clot.
Two days after having her stroke, doctors monitoring her progress determined she was stable enough to be moved to a rehabilitation unit. Once she was settled in her new room, cardiologists told Michelle they had gained insight into what contributed to her stroke. “I have what’s called a prothrombin gene mutation in my blood. Basically, my blood clots easier than other people’s,” she says.
Additional investigation showed Michelle also had an atrial septal defect—a hole in her septum, the partition between the heart’s two chambers. She would need outpatient physical therapy and a procedure to close the hole, but less than a week after having her stroke, she was well enough to go home. Some doctors even labeled her quick recovery a miracle.
In the weeks that followed, Michelle eased back into everyday activities and returned to work. While her life may seem as though it’s back to normal, much has changed. She now takes five medications instead of one and tires easily.
“Before the stroke, I was constantly on the move,” says Michelle. “I’m trying to learn how to slow myself down and what to worry about and what to let go of.” Michelle was left with a sobering thought she wants others to remember. “So often when we’re younger, we tend to think that we’re invincible,” she says. “But stroke has no age limits.”