College student Jillian Marks suffered a stroke in January. (Photos courtesy of Marks family)

College student Jillian Marks suffered a stroke in January. (Photos courtesy of Marks family)

Like many teenagers, Jillian Marks had a flair for the dramatic as she navigated adolescence. Then she encountered real drama, provided by a word that young people don’t expect to hear: stroke.

“I do tend to overreact,” said Jillian, a sophomore at the State University of New York at Cortland. “When they told me ‘stroke,’ I just started crying hysterically. I wouldn’t fall asleep because I was so scared. I’m 19.”

She’s calmed down and she’s coped, but the episode offers several important lessons.

“Strokes don’t just happen in middle age and the elderly. They can happen to young people,” said Joe F. Lau, M.D., Ph.D., director of vascular medicine at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, who is Jillian’s cardiologist. “Don’t ever doubt yourself if you come across symptoms that don’t feel right.”

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off, either by a blood clot or a damaged blood vessel. It is the country’s fifth-leading cause of death, and most victims are older adults.

But strokes do strike younger patients, usually because of heart defects or injuries. A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found a significant increase in stroke hospitalizations among people aged 25-44. The uptick is possibly because risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are causing problems earlier in life.

What happened to Jillian isn’t completely clear. Last January she was at her home in East Northport, New York, packing to go back to college, when she suddenly lost vision in her right eye.

“I was taking a photo in the mirror and I couldn’t see,” she said. “I thought it was the flash, but it wasn’t.”

She called her mother Sharri, a neonatal nurse at a nearby hospital, and her father Paul brought her to the emergency room there. By then the symptoms had disappeared, but doctors wanted an MRI to figure out what had happened.

“I expected it to be clear just because of my age,” Jillian said. “They came back and said there were three blood clots on my brain in different locations. I was freaking out. My mom was freaking out.”

Mom recalls it a little differently. “I said to Jillian, ‘Stay calm, you’re going to be fine,’” Sharri said. “She had no residual damage.”

As doctors looked for a cause, the first clue was simple. Jillian was taking birth control pills, which can increase the risk of blood clots.

“But millions of people take birth control pills,” Lau said. “Why was Jillian the one that developed the stroke? Could some other underlying issue have contributed as well?”

Further tests showed that Jillian might have antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, an autoimmune condition that can lead to clotting. The combination, Lau said, “might have put her into a perfect storm situation,” causing the stroke.

She stopped taking oral contraceptives and as a precaution, Lau prescribed warfarin, an anticoagulant drug used to prevent new clots from forming, thereby preventing new strokes. Jillian, who is studying early childhood education and wants to be a first-grade teacher, said doctors also suggested that she take the semester off.

“I said no way,” she said. “I have to go back.”

Back at school, Jillian has periodic blood work, monitors her diet and keeps in touch with her doctors. She has had several episodes of blurred vision, headaches and light sensitivity, but scans show nothing abnormal. The next step, she hopes, will be to replace warfarin with a baby aspirin, which may also prevent stroke but is less likely to cause bleeding.

“The doctor said go live your life, and that’s what we want her to do,” Sharri said. “She’s really doing amazing. It’s funny because she has a history of being a little over the top, my drama child. This last year she’s become a responsible adult.”

Jillian doesn’t disagree. “I’m nonchalant about it now,” she jokes. “One day I was at the campus health service and they asked me why I’m on warfarin. I said, ‘Oh, I had a stroke.’ It was like everybody’s jaw dropped. I love watching the reactions.”

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