Crystal WallTwo sisters are talking on the phone, as they do at least once a day. They’re laughing about a new TV comedy when one drops the phone and falls to the ground. She tries to explain what’s happening, but her words are slurred.

Crystal Wall recognizes her older sister is having a stroke – again – and this time, Chassity Anderson is alone.

Crystal, wife of Houston-based rapper Paul Wall, called 9-1-1, only to have a horrible realization. While she could drive to her sister’s house blindfolded, she didn’t know the address. Crystal reached their brother, who lived down the street from Chassity, and some of her fear was eased. Help was on the way.

Stroke is something that can happen to anyone at any time and if it does, you have to act quickly,” Crystal said, adding that everyone needs to learn the warning signs and call 9-1-1 right away. “The longer you wait, the worse it can be.”

No Stranger to Stroke

By the time first responders arrive at the house – at the same time as her worried sister – Chassity’s symptoms were subsiding. She was weak on one side, but was able to walk to the ambulance with assistance.

Chassity was 13 when she had her first minor stroke, which weakened her right side. A year later, another minor stroke affected her vision. The strokes led to a diagnosis of sickle cell anemia and moyamoya syndrome. Both conditions put her at high risk for a stroke with more devastating neurological symptoms, but Chassity had been stroke-free for more than 20 years. Or so they thought.

At the hospital, Chassity’s CT scan revealed she had suffered several undocumented “silent” minor strokes. Luckily, this was another of those.

“It was a mild stroke, but it scared me – the thought I could still lose my sister that easily,” Crystal said.

Like many Americans, Crystal grew up thinking stroke was a fact of life for older people. She viewed the disease as something to accept rather than prevent. A few years after Chassity’s diagnosis, their grandmother had a stroke and went into a coma.

“Now that I’m older, I know my grandmother had high blood pressure and diabetes. I didn’t know that then. I’m not sure even she knew,” Crystal said. “I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room visiting my grandmother eating bologna sandwiches and meals full of salt. There wasn’t the kind of awareness there is now.”

Crystal’s grandmother not only came out of the coma, she walked again, talked again and adopted a healthier lifestyle. Crystal’s family tried to make some changes, too, but they didn’t stick.

“Sometimes we know better, but we don’t know how to fix it so we just continue the cycle,” she said.

It’s especially important for their family because African-Americans have nearly twice the risk for a first-ever stroke than white people, and a much higher death rate from stroke.

Breaking the Cycle

In 2009, Crystal’s husband decided to get fit and she decided to join him. Yet, as much as she wanted to learn about health and fitness, she feared that it wasn’t going to work.

“I never thought I could lose the `baby weight’ after six years,” said Crystal, the mother of two. “Most women think that. You try to lose it and you can’t. You redefine your ‘fine spot’ and make peace with it.”

Then Crystal discovered Zumba. Finding an activity she loved transformed her body – she lost 60 pounds – and her attitude.

“I can do anything I put my mind to,” she said. “I wanted to share my success and encourage other women. I get it. Not everyone wants to run or eat lettuce all day long, but there are ways to spice up your exercise routine and your food. There is flavor to being fit.”

Now Crystal is a popular fitness instructor in Houston and has fostered a sisterhood of women who encourage one another on their healthy lifestyle journeys.

“If I kept the same habits I had, I wasn’t going to be healthy,” she said. “Eventually I would have suffered from a stroke like my grandmother or sister. I had to give some real thought to what my best self looked like, what she did physically and what she ate. Health is the new wealth and that’s what I want to pass on to my kids.”

Being Powerful

Crystal has teamed with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association and Feel Rich, Inc., to empower people with the knowledge that stroke is largely preventable, treatable and beatable. The American Stroke Association is leading the way in fighting stroke through research, education, awareness and advocacy.

To survivors, caregivers or anyone looking for a health transformation, Crystal’s message is the same: You have the power to overcome.

“Do everything you can to get healthy and prevent stroke,” she said. “Learn the stroke warning signs and share them with everyone you know so we can help each other. For the survivors out there, be warriors. You lived through your stroke so you’re already on the right track. Remember that being a fighter isn’t just about the physical. Get your mind right first and you can do anything.”

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