When it comes to healthy living, far too many believe we’re exempt from the facts and statistics. We disregard sobering data that serves as reminders that these very temples we use daily could face life-threatening illness and disease at a moment’s notice. The fact is that 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year. The fact also that every forty seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke, and every four minutes, someone dies from one. Even still, we must understand that facts and data are not destiny. Preventing, treating, and overcoming stroke is more than just a possibility, but a reality.
In September 2016, Mildred Thomas learned the importance of keeping health a priority in order to maintain her status as an overcomer. After experiencing a spiral dissection, an unusual heart attack for an otherwise healthy adult, Thomas developed a close relationship with her cardiologist, whom she saw semi-annually. Sixteen years later, before her cardiologist retired, he ran tests to gauge her progress. As far as the grading scale goes, she’d aced them all, and was healthier at 59 than when she’d suffered the attack at 43. Naturally, this clean bill of health was the green light she needed to wean herself off all medicine and return to business as usual. But as life would have it, she found herself back in the emergency room with a harrowing reminder of how imperative it is to be in-tune with your body at every turn, regardless of how healthy you feel.
“One of my best friends had a major stroke at the end of August 2016, and as I spent time with her at the hospital, I could feel my body wearing down,” Thomas recalls. “She told me, ‘Mildred, you’re going to have a stroke.’ It was truly a warning from God, because on September 5, while sitting in the Gateway lobby of VCU, I had a stroke.”
The signs began as difficulty to form sentences as she placed her order for lunch. Then, she struggled to pick up her belongings and return to her friend’s bedside. She’d pick up her purse, then watch it fall back to the floor, and repeat the cycle again and again. It didn’t register that this was the moment her friend’s words would manifest until two medical professionals ran to assist her. Not even five minutes after realizing she was having a stroke, Thomas was rushed to the emergency department and then to the operating room for a procedure to remove the clot from the left side of her brain. In a moment’s notice, life came full-circle.
“We’re going to do everything we can,” the doctor assured her during the procedure. And indeed, they did. The very next day, she was downgraded from ICU to a normal recovery room, and the following day, she was home.
“Because I was in the right place at the right time, they got in and removed the clot right away. That’s the key to preventing residual effects from stroke: recognize the signs and get treated immediately.” Thomas also recognizes the impact this experience had on her faith, which was strong before, but even stronger today.
“It was all a miracle; I was blessed to have everything fall into place the way it did,” she says. “In tough times, The Lord always leads me to Jeremiah 29:11.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) states, “‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Thomas believes that with both the heart attack and the stroke, God is unstoppable, and His plan for her life cannot and will not be foiled.
Today, Thomas’ message is clear: our body is a temple, and we must treat it as such. Her testimony is heard far and wide as she encourages women everywhere to know their body and monitor their health closely in order to recognize signs of dis-ease immediately.
“I try to inform women to be aware of their bodies because heart attack symptoms for women are very different than men. What’s been publicized in the past are typically symptoms for men, so I encourage women to know the difference. I also teach them the importance of recognizing when there’s real cause for concern and when it’s just gas passing through the body.”
Above all, Thomas believes in living fearlessly, unafraid of the data or even her own experiences. She’s begun managing her diet, keeps her cholesterol numbers in the normal range, has incorporated light exercise into her weekly routine, and remains committed to living life as an overcomer.
Mildred Thomas’ story is not an anomaly. She and thousands of stroke survivors in Richmond and beyond have worn their status as “overcomer” as a badge of honor, thanks to the VCU Comprehensive Stroke Center. Equipped with emergency physicians and nurses, vascular neurologists and neurosurgeons who are present around the clock, the Stroke Center has the staff, technology, and resources that not only allow them to handle complex stroke cases efficiently, but also allows them to treat more stroke patients than any stroke center in Central Virginia.
“We have a wonderful inpatient rehab in the hospital,” explains Kristina Gooch, RN, VCU Comprehensive Stroke Center Clinical Nurse. “Transition is very simple. Our main focus is preventing another stroke from happening, so we follow-up with patients, paying special attention to their mental state and how they’re adjusting. We also provide resources for transitioning back into their community and adapting to the new normal, and I do follow-up calls with complex stroke patients to make sure they’re doing okay with their medication.”
Unfortunately, a common thread amongst stroke survivors is the tendency to stop taking medication. Like Thomas, many feel they’re well enough to wean themselves off the medicine, and in other cases, they run out and fail to refill their prescription. Whatever the case, the nurses and staff stress the importance of following doctor’s orders, as failing to take medicine severely increases the chances of having another stroke. If finances are a concern, the center works with patients to keep them on track. It truly takes a village to keep survivors healthy, and the VCU Stroke Center prides itself on being that village.
Part of providing the solid support system needed to recover from stroke is managing expectations about what recovery and progress truly looks like. There’s no set timeline for the healing process; every milestone reached is an accomplishment, and it takes the collaboration of physical and occupational therapy, social work, and speech pathologists to bring patients back to optimal health. Everyone’s journey is different, but it helps to choose a reliable tribe to stay with you every step of the way.
“When it comes to choosing a stroke center, the most important thing to remember is that not all are created equal,” advises Stacie Stevens, PhD, NP, RN, VCU Stroke Center Program Coordinator. “We all operate within the guidelines of stroke treatment, but some are more experienced than others.”
Her advice? Do your research. See which centers are more assertive, research their outcomes, and gain an understanding of how fast they are at identifying and treating strokes.
As common as they are, strokes have the ability to alter your entire life’s trajectory. However, data is not destiny; success stories like Mildred Thomas and others serve as examples of how the proper treatment, the right mindset, and a team of dedicated professionals allows you to not only survive, but thrive.
Photos courtesy of Mildred Thomas.