By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
By 2013, Ashlee White had become a minor celebrity as the tiny, high-heel wearing star of Princesses: Long Island, the Bravo reality TV series about single Jewish women that had the whole island abuzz.
Before the first season ended in August that year, White revealed to viewers that she was a survivor of two cryptogenic strokes, at age 29 and 30.
One week after the last episode aired, White was visiting Manhattan when she realized she was having another stroke.
“The third one was the worst,” said White, who’s now 34. “I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘I’m gonna pass out! I’ve got to get help right now.’ I was panicking, so I got in a cab and said ‘Take me to the emergency room at NYU!’”
By the time she got there, she was sweating profusely, could barely speak, and the left side of her face was numb and drooping.
“My heart rate was sky high – I felt like my heart was jumping out of my body,” she said. “I was pretty sure that was the end. I remember saying ‘Please don’t let me die!’ and ‘Tell my parents I love them.’”
She survived, but the months ahead were incredibly difficult as White had to relearn to walk and speak with help from a team of doctors, physical therapists and nurses.
In April, 2014, White found out that Princesses: Long Island had been cancelled after just one season – another blow to her already fragile psyche.
“I was at rock bottom,” she said. “I was bedridden and I was so ready to throw in the towel and accept my life the way it had become. I didn’t want to work anymore.”
Although White was diagnosed in 2012 with the autoimmune disease lupus, which may increase the risk for stroke, doctors still aren’t sure what caused her strokes. While about 87 percent of strokes are caused by a blood clot blocking the flow of the blood to the brain, one-third of these have no clear cause, leading doctors to call them a “cryptogenic stroke” after the word for “obscure or unknown origin.”
Eventually, she found the resolve to keep fighting with the support of her family and medical team.
During her recovery, White was also bolstered by letters and emails sent by viewers who’d heard about her struggles.
“I had an outpouring of love from people I didn’t even know, which is such an incredible and humbling feeling,” she said. “Whatever people thought about me on the show they put on the side and just rooted for me. I was no longer this person on TV. I was a real person, dealing with a real human situation.
While Princesses: Long Island often showed White gossiping or fighting with the other women, that wasn’t the real Ashlee, said Hal White, her father.
“That was just an image or persona that was created. She’s really a very caring person without a mean bone in her body,” said her father. “There was recently a big fire in the city where people lost everything and Ashlee took her own money and put together care packages for every member of the family. That’s who she is. She gives people hope and positivity and a reason to keep fighting.”
She also likes to make people laugh, whether it’s posting humorous bits of philosophy on social media or interacting with professional wrestlers from World Wrestling Entertainment.
“You have to find something deep down inside that makes you move forward – and I credit not only my family, but WWE wrestling,” she said. “I genuinely love it. When I’m at one of the shows, there’s no pain, no stroke. There’s just a big smile on my face.”
She finds inspiration in volunteering for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association and giving motivational speeches to a variety of audiences. On Tuesday, she’ll moderate a Facebook Q&A with American Stroke Association Chair Dr. Mitchell Elkind about the causes of stroke and what we can do to take control.
“Not to say I didn’t allow myself a pity party for a little time, but I made a commitment to myself and to the community to continue to fight and raise money and awareness and spread positivity because I know how hard it is – especially having a stroke when you’re young,” she said.
“After a stroke, the life you lived before is gone, and you have to find a whole new you. It’s hard, but I want people to know if you keep trying, you can do it.”