One morning, Nicky awoke with a headache and numb arm. She didn’t worry much – at least, not at first. She had occasional headaches because of a past pituitary problem. And, she figured, she’d probably fallen asleep with her arm in an awkward position or had pinched a nerve.
But the pain in her head and the strange feeling in her left arm wouldn’t go away. As Nicky went about her day in Fall River, Wisconsin, she also felt tingling in her leg.
“I just don’t feel good,” Nicky remembers telling a concerned friend around midday.
Hours later, while at work as a hospital nursing assistant, that pounding headache felt like a knife in the back of Nicky’s skull. She struggled putting words together.
“I finally said to a co-worker, ‘I need help. I can’t feel my arm,’” Nicky recalled. She was crying. “It was horrible.”
Nicky spent several hours at the hospital emergency room. Later, she saw her neurologist who believed that she’d had a stroke.
An MRI and other tests confirmed the diagnosis. She also was found to have patent foramen ovale, or PFO, a hole in the heart. Follow-up examinations later revealed she had another type of hole in her heart as well, an atrial septal defect.
Early in Nicky’s eight-day hospital stay, a nurse handed her a binder full of information about stroke recovery.
“It was devastating,” she said. “It was not something to be expected at 23.” Like many people, Nicky had always thought of strokes as affecting older people.
Nicky actually suffered two strokes that day in June 2011, causing her to lose some motor functions in the left side of her body.
She underwent exhausting outpatient speech, occupational and physical therapy. It took 16 weeks to recover. In September 2011, she had heart surgery to repair the defects.
Coping with stroke aftermath hasn’t been easy, but Nicky does it by enthusiastically sharing her story, something colleagues urged her to do when she returned to work in 2012. Nicky reached out to the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, and met the local events coordinator for coffee.
“It was really fun,” Nicky said. She then met “the Go Red girls” and spoke at a Go Red For Women event. “I was really nervous, but excited.”
Today she’s involved in the grassroots advocacy and passion committees of the American Heart Association and has spoken at her area Heart Ball.
“I’m really about sharing and impacting other people’s lives,” she said. “I just want everybody to know that age doesn’t discriminate against anyone having a stroke.”
Nicky urges others to learn the warning signs of stroke, such as speech difficulty, arm numbness or face drooping, and to seek help fast. She notes that she didn’t get treatment soon enough to receive the benefits of the clot-busting medication tPA.
Now 27, Nicky focuses on what’s truly important in life.
Though she still doesn’t completely feel her left toes or ball of her foot, and may always have a little numbness, she’s taking a blood thinner and moving ahead with activities she loves.
Nicky hopes to soon enroll in nursing school, as she was planning to do before her stroke. In her spare time, she runs, hikes, works out and takes a dance class. There are no triathlons for Nicky yet, but she expects to compete again.
In a confident, optimistic voice, she proclaimed: “I’ll get there.”
Photos courtesy of Nicky Leto, Lindsay Scheidell
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