Earlier this year, a little tipsy on exhaustion and excitement at the end of one of our events, I sat down next to a young, fit, beautiful woman. We started talking, she wanted my dress, I wanted her arse. She was a fitness instructor, the picture of health. Then she told me that, two years ago, aged 36, she had suffered a stroke.
That particular day for Jessica was just a normal day: she had taught two classes and taken a class herself. She went home, took a shower and it was then that she felt a shooting pain down the left side of her body. She looked down at her hand and had the strangest sensation: this wasn’t her hand. After a few minutes she found that she now couldn’t move her leg; it felt heavy and asleep.
She got out of the shower alarmed and suddenly a painful pressure headache developed. Now really concerned, she called her doctor who advised Jessica to go to hospital and have it checked out.
Jessica now realises what an idiot she was to have taken the time to dry her hair before her husband drove her to the hospital. What was she thinking? she says.
The hospital did some tests and an MRI scan and told her that she had had a stroke. A STROKE? Jessica was shocked.
The stroke was nothing like she had imagined one would be. And she certainly hadn’t imagined that, aged 36, she could suffer one. Surely strokes were only for old doddery people?
But being healthy (having normal blood pressure, cholesterol levels and not being significantly overweight) probably saved her life and certainly shortened her recovery period. This had been a mini, warning, stroke.
What was so interesting to hear was Jessica’s initial reaction to this event: she felt a weird embarrassment about it. This was something that shouldn’t have happened to someone so young, right?
She was also terrified that it could happen again. She looked at her two small innocent children and realised her life would now never be the same. She had to adapt to the fear of knowing what might have happened and what might, without intervention, happen again. It was an extremely frightening time.
Eventually, Jessica decided to share her story, to help educate other people. She now realises that this can happen to anyone, at any time. Her good-news message is: the faster you get help, the better your chances of recovery, so don’t dry your hair on the way to the hospital.
Now back and fit as a fiddle, she does a lot of work with the American Stroke Association. She often lobbies at the Massachusetts State House and organises fundraisers. She teaches people that 80% of strokes are avoidable by making good lifestyle choices – such as quitting smoking, or treating high blood pressure.
She also tries to teach her kids to live healthy by leading by example. She eats well, she lives well.
What makes Jessica rightly proud is that she knows she makes a difference. She just got an email from a woman who lives in her neighbourhood of Boston. She had read an article that Jessica had written for the Stroke Association about her stroke experience. A little while later, this woman had a similar experience and, because of what she had learned from the article, knew to go straight to hospital.
Back in the room at the Get Together with Jessica, her story told, I begin to be aware of the hubbub of others around us. I can’t believe that the young woman, smiling in front of me, holding my gaze, has just told me how she very nearly died.
Who knows what hand we will be dealt… but forewarned is forearmed. Jessica is certainly leading an extraordinary life.