Stroke at 20-Something? It Happened to Elizabeth Gates

Waking up to a pounding headache after a bachelorette party, The Daily Beast’s Elizabeth Gates chalked it up to the revelry. Then she found she couldn’t speak. Three months later, she writes about having a major stroke at an unthinkably young age.

On May 1, I suffered a stroke. Overnight I lost my ability to speak, write, and read. I’m not overweight and I don’t have high blood pressure. I’m not overdosing on steroids and I don’t take birth control. And I’m not in my 70s—I’m in my 20s. From everything I heard in health class, I was poised for optimal health.

I was doing everything right. Juicing every day? Check. Pescatarian? Check. Yoga? Check. Stopped smoking cigarettes (almost)? Check. Calling home once a week? Check.

How the hell did I have a stroke?

Something bizarre happened while I slept. The next morning I woke up and my mind was gone. Well, partially gone—I could think, but I couldn’t communicate.

“She has a carotid artery dissection in her neck. Four other women were admitted today for the same thing. All under 30.” I woke up as my neurologist was explaining this to my mother. Carotid arteries are located on both sides of your neck. They send oxygenated blood to your brain, but in my case I formed a tear and mine dissected, limiting the amount of oxygen flowing to my brain.

“She’s been losing oxygen in her brain for two weeks prior to the stroke,” my neurologist said. It’s lucky I didn’t have the dissection on my right side, he told me, because I wouldn’t know anything was wrong with me. I could lose my speech center and carry on, thinking I’m fine.

Nicole LaPorte: A Stroke That Hits Young WomenThe doctor went on to say I must have had blunt trauma to the back of my neck, but I don’t remember anything happening. He said it could be from tipping my head too far into the sink at the hair salon. It’s possible. He said I might have fallen. That’s doubtful. Another neurologist asked me if I surfed. I live in New York and I was raised in Boston; we don’t surf. But apparently a tear in the carotid artery is the leading cause in strokes among young people. Most commonly they heal themselves, but mine formed a clot.

I was at a bachelorette party in Vermont when it happened. We had arrived late. After dancing a bit, smoking one too many cigarettes, and taking a few sips of nondescript dark rum, I took myself off to bed. Everyone else was still awake. My window was open and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of them climbing into the hot tub, laughing. But something bizarre happened while I slept. The next morning I woke up and my mind was gone. Well, partially gone—I could think, but I couldn’t communicate. It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but they had left my body and run off with my mind.

My head was pounding when I first woke up, but I’m in my 20s; nearly every morning my head aches as a result of some debauchery the night before. I rubbed it slightly and went to wash my face. I poured facial soap into my hands. I bent forward to start scrubbing away and I noticed that I couldn’t move the right side of my face. Then, I tried to speak and but I could only say, “What?” With soap dripping from my face I went to get my phone and realized I didn’t recognize the keyboard—or the numbers that coordinated with the suddenly Chinese-looking characters.

I dried my face and went to get my friend. She looked slightly alarmed and confused, but we get into all types of things. I could have been having an allergic reaction to something. She told me to breathe it out. There we were, with our arms spread wide, trying to do Kundalini breathing techniques in her bathroom. “In and out. In and out.” I followed her. It wasn’t working.

Once we were packed into the car with my two other girlfriends, they told me write the alphabet. I could get up to the letter L. I pushed the paper away and focused on the backs of my hands. If I could still recognize the backs of my hands, my mind hadn’t run off for good. My friends called my family and I just sat there, fading into my “new” mind as the world started to rebel against me and take on weird mutilated formations. My mind is turning into liquid, I thought, and I returned my focus to the backs of my hands.

By the time I reached the doctor’s office, they tell me I had mastered three words: “what,” “yes,” and “how,” none of which proved helpful to the growing number of doctors who came to see me. I was told I had a “complicated migraine. Not to worry, you’ll be out of here in no time.” My friend climbed into the hospital bed with me and then I fell asleep.

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I was apparently transferred to a larger hospital when they realized this was no migraine. When my father arrived, I cried for the first time. I just tucked myself into his chest and cried. My friends left. One year ago, almost to the date, I was appearing on CBS and CNN in defense of my father, and now I couldn’t speak up for any of us. I was wondering how the hell my whole set of communication tools could be taken away while I was sleeping. Wasn’t there a form to sign before you lost your mind? I knew life wasn’t fair, but this was some backward bullshit.

My father said, “You clearly can’t talk, so why don’t you write me something?” He handed me a pen and paper. I didn’t remember what hand I used to write with, so I picked my left hand (I’m right-handed). As I struggled to form letters, he turned his head to pretend as if he didn’t see me trying to write a single sentence, and in the end all I could draw was a small circle. Shame washed over me. He turned back to face me, and I just shook my head no, handing him back the paper and the pen, and he placed me back into bed.

Nine hours after I had gotten to the hospital, and my mother and sister had arrived, the doctor said, “She had a major stroke. It will be a year before she talks and three months before you can understand her.” My mother rubbed my head and said, “I’ll be with you as long as it takes,” and my sister held my hand. I just lay there.

I was in intensive care for five days, hooked up to an anticoagulant drip. When my mother took me home, she had to give me shots in my stomach of Lovenox and I was prescribed Coumadin. I was told not to shave, as a small nick in my leg could turn into a nightmare because I was on blood thinners. I couldn’t drive. I had flash cards that reminded me what a “desk” and a “chair” looked and sounded like. I had to relearn the whole world.

As far as the mechanics go, it’s only been three months, and my voice has returned to normal. Some words are harder for me to get out than others, but when I raise my voice, I can’t talk at all. Stunning. Soon after my stroke, I could write but I couldn’t read my own handwriting. I could form letters in my mind and write them down, but until very recently I couldn’t recognize the words once they hit the page. But I’m regaining my reading ability slowly. It's much like being back in the third grade: I place my finger under the word and read under my breath. It’s annoying. But I wrote this. Word by impossibly slow word, with my finger reading line by line; it took me a full week, but hey—I wasn’t even supposed to be speaking at this point.

Before the stroke I didn’t realize how cynical I’d become, how jaded; I didn’t count the number of cigarettes I smoked, how many yoga classes I mindlessly wandered into, wishing I could check my phone the whole time, how many times I scanned a transit pass, how calling home once a week became a task, how many half-caf vanilla lattes I bought. I didn’t realize how many days I passed through everything focused on nothing. I think that is the hardest part when facing a recovery—contemplating the new horizons of your life. It’s a bit scary, but wide with hope.

I agreed to write this article so soon after my stroke because most young people simply disregard their splitting headache (a good party can make that happen), or a slight numbness in their fingers (typing all day can do that), or pains in their neck (rough sex can accomplish that), or the other brief descriptions of “stroke signs” that, for our age group, simply do not strike us as warning signs. They are just par for the course.

I’m not trying to be the spokesperson for how to avoid strokes. I am certainly not the one to tell you not to have that extra cigarette. To say no to that one last drink or pass on the joint—we’re young. Go for it. But I do know this: The brain is a tricky, magnificent place, but if you have a headache that lasts through a couple of Excedrin, do yourself a favor and go get it checked, and have this article folded up in your back pocket for when they try to turn you away, saying you’re “too young to be having a stroke.”

Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New School University and a former intern at Vogue magazine.