By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Lilian Tsi Stielstra was a couch potato. But at age 46, that changed.
Waking on a Saturday in 2010 in her San Francisco home, she recalls feeling tired. She brushed it off as stress from her demanding bank sales job.
Walking up the stairs, she felt “pins and needles” in her left leg. A few minutes later, her left arm had the same sensation. Then the left side of her face felt numb.
“I realized it was a stroke because it was all on one side,” Lilian said.
Her husband Scott Stielstra, a firefighter and paramedic, bundled Lilian into the car and drove about three blocks to UCSF Medical Center. The American Heart Association recommends people experiencing stroke symptoms, such as face drooping, arm weakness or speech difficulty, call 911 immediately.
Lilian’s stroke came six months after she was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. Tests after the stroke showed she also had high cholesterol and high triglycerides, other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
Being an overweight woman with a stressful, sedentary lifestyle also increased her risk of stroke.
Each year, about 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke and more than 130,000 people die from it. More women than men die from stroke.
Although Lilian, now 53, has no residual effects from the stroke, her neurologist recommended that she walk for 30 minutes a day.
“My excuse for many years was that I didn’t have time to exercise,” said Lilian, who was interviewed for this article while she walked through Golden Gate Park.
She made time.
A neighbor volunteered to walk with her every day at 6 a.m., keeping her accountable. Within two years of her stroke, she was jogging and pledged to run by age 50 the local 7.5-mile Bay to Breakers race – known for runners dressed in costumes. She did, with her then-13-year-old son Peter. She was a tiger mom, complete with a tail.
Now, Lilian runs about 4 miles a day, farther on weekends. She also started swimming two years ago and is trying strength training.
She changed her diet, eating more vegetables and grains, and less sugar. She substitutes Greek yogurt for ice cream.
Lilian also stopped working 15-hour days at her job, where she often was the top salesperson. In 2016, she was No. 7 out of 35 people.
“I just learned to live with that,” Lilian said. “I decided I cannot afford my health to go bad again.”
Those changes led to weight loss: about 25 pounds. They also reduced Lilian’s risk of another stroke.
“It takes a lot of willpower,” said Scott, who made similar changes. He and Lilian later this year plan to walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, an ancient European pilgrim route to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Lilian, who grew up in Singapore, said heart health was never discussed in her family, even though her father died from a heart attack at 81 and experienced mild strokes. Now, she makes sure Peter and her 22-year-old daughter Audrey understand why the family has made certain changes.
Lilian’s educational efforts extend beyond family. Fluent in Cantonese, she volunteers with the Chinese Community Cardiac Council in San Francisco. As a national Go Red For Women spokeswoman, she encourages other women to learn about their family health history and make healthier choices.
“You have to make a conscious choice to change your lifestyle and have cooperation from your family,” Lilian said. “I want to have a healthy heart so I can be alive for my children’s weddings and my potential grandchildren.”