By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Last weekend Emily Welbourn laced up her shoes and took off for a 3.5 mile run. She hadn’t been training and there were about a million other things vying for her attention. But that run, on that day, was not going to be missed.
Three years ago on May 21, Welbourn was 27 and lacing up for a different run — a world championship race in New York. She was living in China at the time, pursuing her love for Mandarin, and had qualified there for a trip to the race finals in the United States.
At the starting line on home soil, Welbourn felt that nervous anticipation familiar to runners, but nothing out of the ordinary. At the 1-mile marker, normal became a quick and distant memory.
As her feet crossed the marker, she felt a sudden and unbearable pain near her eyebrow. The pain extended from her eye, across the top of her head and down the back of her neck. For the next 2 1/2 half miles, Welbourn focused on putting one foot in front of the other and tried to convince herself she was severely dehydrated.
At the end of the short race, she couldn’t move her left hand, couldn’t open a bottle of water. She felt oddly disconnected from body and fell over trying to do a simple stretch. Person after person asked Welbourn if she was OK.
Before long her face was lopsided and she was 100 percent paralyzed on her left side. After failing a smile and arm test, a doctor on site finally said the words that set another race against time into motion, “Emily, you’re having a stroke.”
Welbourn traveled back to New York this week, days after her third stroke anniversary, to tell her story during the Kathie Lee & Hoda hour of Wednesday’s “Today” show. The on-camera interview picked up from a produced package of Welbourn recounting the day of her stroke.
Welbourn told co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager the stroke caught her unaware and that running was key to her recovery.
“About three months after my stroke I ran for the first time on a treadmill about half the pace I normally used to. Ran for a mile. And worked up to running a half marathon 11 months after my stroke,” Welbourn said.
Hager noted that stroke is not top of mind for many young adults.
“When you think about being 27, I’m 35, I would never think about this. What are some warning signs for people watching?” she said.
NBC Medical Contributor Dr. Natalie Azar highlighted the “simple, simple acronym” for viewers: F.A.S.T. – face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, time to call 911.
“I can’t emphasize this (time) enough,” Azar said.
Hager asked Welbourn about her life now. Welbourn told viewers she went from running races to raise money for stroke awareness to being a national spokeswoman for Go Red For Women and now working for the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association.
“I could never have imagined three years ago that such a terrifying experience would turn into the kinds of opportunities I’ve had to advocate for stroke research and education,” she told American Heart Association News. “Sharing my story on ‘Today’ was such a cool experience. It hasn’t even really hit me yet.”