September 27, 2010 was a normal Monday morning for 36 year old Kristi Winters. Busy getting ready for work and thinking about the day ahead, the mother of four had no idea how her life was about to change.
“I didn’t know what was going on”, Winters recalls as she felt suddenly overwhelmed with a dizzy, fuzzy, and blurry feeling standing in the bathroom. Her first reaction is to dismiss the feeling as a dizzy spell, one she has had before. However, moments later a sharp pain strikes through her brain.
Winters goes into her room and sits on the bed, worried another migraine is about to interrupt her life again. Suffering from nearly continuous migraines once or twice a week for most of her adult life, Winters had accepted the pain of migraines and tried to live through it. A busy Monday morning preparing for work was no exception.
Within minutes, Winters begins to realize, this is not a typical migraine. “I lost control of my right arm,” Winters remembers, “and I knew something was wrong.” As her husband looks at her with concern and asks what is wrong, she tries to tell him how she feels. However, he keeps asking her what she is saying, because he can’t understand her. Winters has lost control of her speech.
Winters and her husband try to keep the family on schedule for the start of the work and school week. Her husband takes the boys to school, while Winters reaches for her computer to login from home. Despite Winters’ obvious symptoms, neither thinks at the age of 36 a stroke is something that is even a possible explanation. “I was instant messaging a friend at work about what was going on,” Winters explains. “She says, ‘Oh my gosh Kristi, you need to get to the hospital,’” she recalls as the first time she realizes she may have suffered a stroke.
Classic warning signs for stroke include sudden numbness of weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially when it occurs only on one side of the body. Confusion, blurred speech, and sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes are also indications of a stroke. Sudden dizziness and severe headache may also signal a stroke. Winters is experiencing nearly every warning sign for a stroke.
When her husband returns from taking the boys to school, he is also convinced. They leave for the ER, where Winters spends the day going through tests and eliminating possibilities. She is transferred to the hospital on the one percent chance this is not a complex migraine, but a stroke. It is then she is told she has indeed suffered a stroke and has a hole in her heart, also known as Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO). PFO occurs in one out of every five adults and many don’t know they have PFO until a medical event like a stroke occurs. PFO, Winters was told, could be the cause for a lifetime of migraines and a stroke at such an early age.
Winters qualifies for a procedure to implant a closure device to heal the hole in her heart. One month following her stroke, Winters receives the procedure, closing the hole in her heart and the door on a potentially devastating medical event. “I feel fortunate and blessed that I don’t have the lasting effect that could have happened,” Winters shares as her voice holds back the raw emotion.
Since her stroke, Winters has only experienced two migraines, a far stretch from her weekly bout with the life-interrupting headaches. She feels confident her risk for another stroke has been dramatically improved through the closure device implanted following her stroke. However, every day since that September Monday morning, she lives with a greater appreciation. “You change how you look at life in a totally different way, “ Winters explains, “We can’t take what we have for granted.”
Winters has just recently decided to share her stroke story to help other women like her, who may not think the possibility of a stroke at a young age could be a reality. At a recent American Heart Association event, Winters spoke to a crowd, explaining her medical history and battle with continuous migraines that led to her stroke. Her decision to share her story was personally reinforced immediately following that event, when she was able to be a lifeline to someone else who had experienced a similar circumstance.
Today, Kristi Winters enjoys life with her husband and four boys, staying physically active without the pain of constant migraines. Her number one piece of advice to other women is to, “listen to your body and speak up for your health. You know when something isn’t right.”
Steve and Kristi Winters with their sons, Greggory (20), Austin (15), Kros (13), and Kash (6).