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It’s quite easy to believe that the people who are in the business of providing health care are more likely to pay close attention to their own well being. Especially in a hospital’s marketing department, where the job includes informing the community about health risks, ways to make positive lifestyle changes, tools to manage chronic diseases, and how to get connected to the doctors and services people may need to stay healthy. But for Michelle Willow, marketing and communications manager at Dignity Health Mercy and Memorial Hospitals, the phrase ‘practice what you preach’ became a frightening reality one morning in September of 2013 when she suddenly felt the onslaught of a powerful headache.
“It was the strangest headache I had ever experienced; the entire morning I felt disoriented, dizzy, and confused, slurring my words, and sometimes not even responding when someone asked me questions,” Michelle remembered. “I joked all morning with my colleagues ‘I think I’m having a stroke.’”
Michelle went home early and soon fell asleep. The next morning she felt better, but noticed something odd while getting ready for work. “Every time I looked in the mirror, something seemed off ,” Michelle said. “It was subtle, but there was something off about my face.”
Arriving at her office, she picked up the phone and called Michele Shain, director of Neuro and Cardiac Services for Dignity Health Memorial Hospital. “Michelle and I are nearly best friends, and I happen to be the stroke program director here,” Shain recounted. “She called and said ‘I don’t feel very good.’ I went to see her and she explained to me that her face felt kind of numb, she felt like she was walking strange.”
Shain immediately started an indirect neuro assessment as she would for any stroke patient. “I asked ‘can you raise your eyebrows for me, smile and show me your teeth, hold your arms up?’ When I asked her to smile for me, I realized she had facial droop,” Shain said.
Realizing her good friend was having a stroke, Shain insisted they head immediately to the emergency department. Michelle wanted to walk rather than use a wheelchair, and Shain witnessed more confirmation to her initial diagnosis. “I could see that she had weakness on one side because it was difficult for her to walk in a straight line, like in a sobriety test,” Shain said. “I was holding her arm and Michelle said ‘I don’t feel like I know where the floor is.’”
The attending physician quickly performed an evaluation and ordered a complete ischemic stroke workup. Over the next several hours, Michelle went through a series of tests, including CT scans, MRI, ultrasounds, and X-rays. The results confirmed that Michelle had suffered a TIA (mini-stroke) and that she had carotid stenosis: a 95 percent blockage in her right carotid artery, one of two large blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the large, front part of the brain. Told of the diagnosis, Michelle was shocked.“I thought ‘What? How can that be? I’m too young!’” she said.
Shain says carotid stenosis is a common culprit for causing a TIA mini-stroke. “But Michelle’s blockage being at such a critical level is a bit unusual, especially given someone who’s only 47,” she added. “A good takeaway from all this is that stokes can happen to young people, too, so they shouldn’t discount symptoms because they believe they’re in an age range where it doesn’t apply to them.”
Her situation was severe enough to require immediate admittance to the hospital, and two days later, Michelle underwent a carotid endarterectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the plaque material, or blockage, in the lining of her artery, constricted by the buildup of deposits.
“The vascular surgeon told me I was a lucky girl. I was a week, maybe two, away from a massive stroke. I had dodged a bullet.” Michelle said.
According to Shain, TIA symptoms are like a greeting card, an invitation letting you know something’s wrong, which is why anyone who has them should never delay getting medical attention. “Because about 50 percent of patients who have their first TIA go on in the next 12 months to have a total ischemic stroke, it’s really important to identify symptoms early, get a workup, identify the risk factors and the causation of those symptoms,” Shain said.
Michelle spent the next six weeks recovering, but felt she was on an emotional roller coaster. “I was afraid of everything; I was so afraid of dying that I was afraid to live,” she remembers. “I asked ‘how did I get here? What do I do now? Why did this happen to me?’ But I already knew the answers. I knew the risk factors, the signs, and my family history. I knew my cholesterol was dangerously high, that I was too stressed, and I wasn’t taking the time to care for myself.”
Today, Michelle barely notices the scar that runs from her ear to the center of her neck. But the cholesterol and blood pressure medications and aspirin are a daily reminder that she has been given a second chance. Michelle says she has learned to not over-extend herself, and is spending more time with the people she loves.
“If you wait until tomorrow to live your life, it may be too late,” Michelle said. “I never got the idea of the bucket list until this happened; now I totally get it. Go see Fleetwood Mac? Check that off the list. Next up: Ireland. But no jumping out of a plane; I’m not crazy.”
Shain is thrilled how Michelle has taken control of her life and how far she has come from that day they walked unsteadily to the emergency department. “As a nurse, I know bad stuff can happen sometimes and here was my friend; I knew what she was up against,” Shain said. “She was terrified. But it scared her enough to make some lifestyle changes and manage her risk factors. I’m really proud of her; she’s done a good job and I know it’s not easy.” Michelle also feels lucky to be working in a hospital with a certified stroke center and a good friend nearby who knew immediately what was wrong. While Shain is flattered, she cautions that not everyone has a best friend who is a medical professional. “That’s why it’s important to be your own advocate, learn the signs and symptoms of stroke, understand what your risk factors are, know what your blood pressure is, what your lipid profile is,” she said.
“This year for Mother’s Day, my son bought me a necklace with a four leaf clover,” Michelle said. “It continually reminds me how fortunate I am to have friends like Michele and how lucky I am to be a part of the Dignity Health family. My job is to share stories, but I never thought it would be my own. If there is someone out there who is ignoring the signs that something is wrong, I truly hope my story will inspire them to take action right away.”
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