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When Stroke Happens... at Age 27

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Ever wonder what it's like to experience a stroke? Avid runner Emily Welbourn blogs about the day she had a stroke while running a race.

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At the sound of the starting gun, I charge forward with the other runners selected from around the world. In spite of being at peak physical health, I slowly realize my pace isn't sustainable. The one-mile marker is now ahead, I've got this. Just keep moving.

Suddenly I am stabbed above the eyebrow...but no one is within arm's reach. Blindsided, I squeeze my eyes shut for a moment to tamper the pain, and the invisible knife is dragged across the top of my head down to my neck.

Never imagining the worst, I will every part of my body to run through the pain. My ankles have somehow grown weights around them, and I watch runners pass me at a steady rate. Miraculously, the finish line comes into view and once again, I've got this. One more step. One more step.

I hear my name announced as I cross and my body lurches to a halt as I feel my insides catch up with the rest of me. I must be dehydrated, there's no reason to feel this awful after three and a half miles.
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My left hand can't open a Gatorade, so instead I hold the bottle with my knees. I need to stretch for a bit, and then I'll find some ibuprofen, but girls nearby interrupt my train of thought. "Hey, are you okay?" I brush them off and discover what a baby giraffe must feel like when trying to sit in the grass. Which leg do I bend first? The pain has grown unbearable, so I decide to find that ibuprofen but am shocked when I fall back to the ground. The second set of bystanders is more forceful, hauling me to the medical tent. Ten minutes after crossing the finish line, my left side is completely immobile, and I hear the words, "You are having a stroke."

As a 27-year-old marathon-running vegetarian, this is about the last thing I ever expected to hear. Our culture has grouped stroke with conditions of the elderly, so I was safe, right? I didn't know that nearly 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 will suffer strokes this year, one quarter of the nationwide total. Shockingly, stroke is the third leading cause of death in women, even though the majority of strokes are preventable.

Thanks to fast-acting paramedics trained in the latest stroke protocol, my symptoms were recognized, the hospital was ready and, following a confirmatory CT scan, I received the clot-busting drug t-PA within two hours. The majority of people who have strokes aren't as lucky; one third never make it and another third will remain permanently disabled.

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Time is the number one factor in reducing death and disability caused because 1.9 million brain cells die each minute a stroke is untreated. We must recognize that stroke does not discriminate based on age, and it's equally important that we know the warning signs. Memorize the acronym F.A.S.T. (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 911). Visit StrokeAssociation.org or contact your local American Heart Association/American Stroke Association to ask for more information. Share this article with your friends and family. Most importantly, do not be afraid to see a doctor if something doesn't feel right. I am living proof that stroke can change anyone's life in an instant.