By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Kristen Powers, an athlete throughout her adult life, was doing a training ride for an upcoming half Ironman competition, when she had a minor crash.
With a gashed forehead, the then-33-year-old from St. Petersburg, Florida, was taken to the hospital, stitched up and released. She was chatting on the phone as she sat in her car in the hospital parking lot when the phone suddenly fell from her hand.
She couldn’t pick it up. In fact, she couldn’t feel anything on her right side, and her face was drooping and her speech was slurred. Powers was having a stroke.
Her husband, Jason, rushed her back to the hospital, where it took five hours of testing for doctors to confirm a blockage was cutting off the blood supply to her brain.
Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the U.S. and a leading cause of long-term disability. Most strokes can be prevented by controlling risk factors such as high blood pressure.
In Powers’ case, her stroke in 2011 was caused by a piece of fibrous tissue that was removed with a clot-snaring device. The tissue came from an undiagnosed tumor on her mitral valve, one doctors said may have been there since birth.
Once the blockage was removed, Powers had a long recovery to relearn how to speak and run. She set aggressive goals from the outset.
“I told my therapist that first day I wanted to run a 5K,” she said.
It was a goal she’d reach within three months.
Powers also had intensive therapy to regain her speech, training her facial muscles to form words and helping her brain to find the right words and accomplish daily tasks.
“I had to rewire my brain for everything from tying my shoes to writing my name,” she said.
The experience affected her in other ways. Normally an outgoing, vocal person, Powers found herself reluctant to jump into conversations like she did before her stroke.
“It was hard for me to follow conversations,” she said. “By the time I could process it and come up with something to say, the conversation had already passed.”
It was a difficult time for Powers, who had a degree in journalism and worked in marketing and communications. It took a year of therapy before Powers was able to completely regain her cognitive and speech patterns.
“It was like someone had taken it away from me and I had to fight to get it back,” she said.
Powers worked to maintain a positive attitude the first couple years after her stroke, but would occasionally find herself suddenly overwhelmed by emotion.
Now 38, she’s more reflective about her experience now, and says she is grateful to have largely recovered to her “new normal.” She still runs marathons and cycles, but had to back away from triathlon events after finding she tired more easily.
“I really became an activist,” said Powers, a longtime volunteer with the American Heart Association. “I’ll take any opportunity I have to speak about my experience or raise awareness about stroke.”
At times, her right side still causes difficulties. She’ll scuff her toes and sometimes tumble. Crowds occasionally overwhelm her and the elegant penmanship she always prided did not come back.
“If that’s the worst of it, I think I’m okay,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Kristen Powers