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Stroke of Luck

January 14, 2016

It's easy to believe people in the business of providing health care are more likely to pay close attention to their own well-being. But for Michelle Willow, marketing and communications manager at Dignity Health Mercy and Memorial Hospitals, that assumption was tested one morning in September of 2013 when she suddenly felt a powerful headache.

"The entire morning I felt disoriented, dizzy, and confused, slurring my words, and sometimes not even responding to questions," Michelle remembered. "I joked all morning, '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, it was subtle, but something seemed off about my face," Michelle said.

Arriving at her office, she went to visit Michele Shain, director of Neuro and Cardiac Services for Dignity Health Memorial Hospital. Shain recounted, "Michelle called and said her face felt kind of numb, and that she felt like she was walking strange."

Shain immediately started a neuro assessment. "When I asked her to smile for me, I realized she had facial droop," Shain said. Realizing her friend was having a stroke, Shain insisted they head immediately to the emergency department.

The attending physician there quickly performed an evaluation and ordered a complete workup. A series of tests confirmed 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 brain. Michelle was shocked. "I thought 'What? How can that be? I'm too young!'" she said.

She was admitted to the hospital, and two days later, Michelle underwent a surgical procedure to remove the plaque material in the lining of her artery.

"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 an invitation letting you know something's wrong, which is why anyone who has them should never delay getting medical attention.

Michelle spent the next six weeks recovering, but felt she was on an emotional roller coaster. "I asked 'Why did this happen to me?' But I already knew. I knew my family history. I knew my cholesterol was dangerously high, 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.

Shain is thrilled how Michelle has taken control of her life. "She was terrified. But it scared her enough to make some lifestyle changes and manage her risk factors. I'm really proud of her."

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