By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
As the mother of four teenagers, Dana Rivera was constantly on the go, shuttling kids for school, activities, sports practice and attending games.
Finding herself with 30 minutes to kill before picking up her son from summer school in June 2009, she ducked into a store to browse, dropping her keys as she entered. As she bent to retrieve them, her arm flung around and her nose started to run.
Then she collapsed.
“I could hear the employees asking me if I was OK, but I couldn’t say anything or pick my body up,” said Rivera, who was 44 at the time.
Rivera was having a transient ischemic stroke, also called a mini-stroke. But it wasn’t diagnosed initially.
At the hospital, her symptoms subsided. Doctors diagnosed her with a menopausal migraine and sent her home.
As Rivera’s parents drove her to her home in Pacific Palisades, California, she had a full-blown ischemic stroke. She was incoherent, couldn’t remember simple things like the alphabet and was vomiting.
Her parents rushed her back to UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica. By the time they got there, Rivera’s left side was paralyzed.
Imaging scans revealed she had a hole between the upper chambers of her heart, called a patent foramen ovale. Although everyone is born with such an opening, it typically closes within a few months. But in about a quarter of people, the hole remains open, creating a portal for blood clots to escape the heart.
The body forms tiny clots all the time, but tiny capillaries in the lungs usually filter out those clots before sending the oxygenated blood back to the heart and then on to the rest of the body, such as the brain. Doctors closed Rivera’s PFO six months later to prevent clots from again passing through the opening.
The impact from the stroke was significant, both physically and emotionally.
“My life was in shambles,” she said. “I was the mother of four teenagers and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to walk or use my hand or arm again.”
She started slow, using a walker, a cane and then a brace to walk each morning with her husband, increasing distances gradually. Yoga helped her manage anxiety.
“I had to learn that it was a slow process and I had to take it one day at a time,” she said. “I was so used to multitasking and being so vibrant, I had to learn the word ‘patience.’”
Rivera leaned heavily on family and friends for support.
“My mom was a cancer survivor, so on bad mornings when I would just cry, she would help me through those moments,” Rivera said. “She knew how to be a survivor and helped me get over that wall.”
Rivera motivated herself with a special goal: the ability to wear high heels again.
“I love high heels and wedges and feel very feminine and empowered,” she said. “That drove me to get better.”
She was able to regain her independence and resume many of her old routines — including wearing high heels — within four and a half months. But it was a full year before Rivera felt like her old self again. She still experiences minor weakness on her left side, but it’s not noticeable to anyone else.
Now, 50, Rivera found a new sense of purpose in raising stroke awareness and starting a weekly support group for stroke survivors, beginning with one at the hospital where she was treated and expanding to two nearby hospitals.
The experience also gave her a fresh take on life.
“I have a lot more appreciation for how precious life is,” Rivera said. “Now, if I’m not feeling good, I don’t push myself. I’m a lot better at listening to my inner voice.”
Photos courtesy of Dana Rivera