By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
It was a little after 5 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Bri Winkler – a 24-year-old TV meteorologist and news reporter in Los Angeles – was getting ready for a spin class.
Numbness followed, starting on her face and moving to her right arm and leg. Although she wouldn’t realize it until later, the right side of her face began drooping, too.
Winkler now knows – teaches, even – that these are classic symptoms of a stroke. She advises everyone to call 9-1-1 at the first sign of these problems.
But on that morning, all she could think to do was call her sister, Tara Riggs.
Riggs encouraged Winkler to eat something, so she headed to the kitchen. In her weakened state, this meant crawling downstairs. She managed to take a few bites, only to vomit.
Riggs, meanwhile, used another phone to call Winkler’s friends. One of them immediately called 9-1-1.
By the time help arrived, Winkler was 1½ hours into her ordeal. Her symptoms had worsened, leaving her speech slurred and her vision diminished. Her senses were so scrambled that as the paramedics arrived, she thought more about the mess in her kitchen and the fact she was wearing only a sports bra and yoga pants.
“It was a terrifying experience,” she said, “and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.”
Winkler was taken to an emergency room. It actually was her second visit in less than a week.
The previous Friday, she awoke with a headache so painful that she called in sick to work and had a friend take her to the hospital. A CAT scan showed no problems, and the doctor suggested it could be a viral infection. She was given medicine for the pain and sent home, where she slept the day away.
Winkler returned to work Saturday, but felt like she was in a haze and decided to stay home to rest on Sunday. She muddled through the next few days, still tired.
Now there was no doubt something was seriously wrong. She underwent another CAT scan, only this time one that uses a special dye to provide contrast, which helps some things show up more clearly. This revealed two frightening things: a tear in the lining of an artery in her neck, and a blood clot in her brain that caused an ischemic stroke.
The neurologist asked Winkler when her symptoms started. She struggled to give a cohesive answer, prompting him to ask “What time?” more urgently.
When Bri answered 5:20 a.m., the doctor immediately told the anesthesiologist, “Give her the shot now.”
The syringe was filled with tPA, a clot-busting drug. Studies show major improvements can occur when given within three hours of the onset of stroke symptoms, and at this point it was 8:18 a.m.
Almost immediately, Winkler felt a rush.
“It was the most amazing sense of awakening,” she said. “It hurt, but it was also beautiful. I felt so alive as the feeling came back to my leg, arm and face.”
A day later, MRI results showed no long-term damage to her brain. Within two days, she was on her feet again. After taking a blood thinner for a month, she now takes only a baby aspirin, and her artery tear has healed.
Three years later, doctors aren’t sure why Winkler had a stroke; unfortunately, this is true in about 30 percent of all stroke cases. She had minimal family history of the disease – just a grandmother who had a stroke at 76. Plus, testing for blood-clotting diseases showed no hereditary link.
Today, Winkler continues to practice yoga, but avoids certain poses that put pressure on her neck and spine. She’s also careful to avoid overdoing herself.
“I’ve gone from a ‘type A’ to a ‘type A-minus’ person,” she said. “I’ve always been a positive person, but this really changed the way I view and shape everything.”
Part of her new view is helping raise awareness about stroke – from the risks to recognizing the symptoms.
Stroke is the fifth-leading killer of Americans, and a leading cause of adult disability. The American Stroke Association wants all Americans to know that stroke is beatable, treatable and largely preventable. It’s also important to know how to recognize a stroke F.A.S.T. — that is, if you detect face drooping, arm weakness or speech difficulty, it’s time to call 9-1-1.
Winkler is an ambassador with the American Stroke Association and a member of the Western States Stroke Task Force, helping support efforts to raise awareness and sharing her story at key events, including conferences, luncheons and fundraisers.
In 2014, Winkler shared her story to local and national media.
She was featured on “Good Morning America,” local radio stations, and her station, KABC/ABC7. Following her story on KABC, the station set up a phone bank staffed with local neurologists to answer viewers’ questions.
As frightening as her stroke was, Winkler sees a silver lining.
“It’s given me a life purpose,” she said. “I felt so fortunate to have survived, as soon as I recovered I wanted to give back as much as possible.”
Photos courtesy of Bri Winkler
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