During the entire month of October, the color pink has been splashed everywhere. City lights, donation canisters at cash registers, and the plethora of products that are branded as ‘breast cancer awareness’ have made it impossible for anyone not to know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. At an event I attended this month, the speaker asked all those who have survived breast cancer to stand while the audience applauded. No doubt- these women are survivors. However, October is also a time to raise awareness for another severe health crisis.
According to the American Heart Association, the acronym F.A.S.T. is an easy way to recognize stroke symptoms: Face Drooping, Arm Weakness, Speech Difficulty, Time to Dial 9-1-1. Chances are that if I went up to people on the street, most would be unable to identify stroke symptoms, but all would be able to share the importance breast examinations.
At twelve, I found myself emerged in the world of heart disease when my mother had a massive heart attack and needed an emergency quadruple bypass surgery two weeks before Christmas. I was fifteen when my mom had her second heart attack, which led to her first stroke after having a heart cauterization at age 45 one week before Thanksgiving. Over the past decade, my mother has had 2 heart attacks, three major strokes and multiple TIAs (Transient Ischemic Attacks).
Each stroke has left behind new impairments. Right side weakness, memory loss, aphasia, erratic emotions, limited stamina. But the vilest residual consequence has been the draining of her self-confidence. Her outgoing and independent personality is gone, and has been replaced with a constant dread. Dread that more of her facilities will be stolen without any warning.
My father and I have stood witness in silent horror as each incident has left an indelible mark on her life. Falling over because of balance impairments. Slurring words together as if she downed a bottle of whiskey. The glazed stare when she struggles to answer questions. Frustration as aphasia steals her ability to commute her thoughts clearly. Terror as she attempts to write something and all that can be seen is scribbles. Resentment as she attempts to read but has trouble retaining the information from the prior chapter. Like any illness, my mother has good days and bad days. But the elephant in the room is always present, reminding us how the strokes have changed our entire family dynamic.
Trying to find resources for young adult children of stroke victims has been difficult. Much of the literature is tailored to middle-age adult children dealing with elderly parents. Every educational brochure or website features patients that resemble my grandmother, while caregivers are always represented as middle aged adults that look like my mom.
As a teenager, our traditional roles of mother and daughter inverted. I was the one calling to check up on her and leaving reminder notes all over the house because her short-term memory loss was spotty. She did more door-slamming than me because it became difficult for her to manage her emotions. More than once I’ve had to give a reminder to watch her language- because on certain days the filter between her mind and mouth disconnects. Midday naps and restricted stamina made it challenging to plan typical mother and daughter activities that we would both enjoy.
There have also been many instances where I reminiscence a memory from my childhood, which wasn’t that long ago, and was met with a confused expression. That is when my heart breaks the most. Not only am I going to be potentially robbed of a future with my mother but my past has also been altered because of this illness.
Every few years our family is lulled into an unofficial remission, convincing ourselves that this illness is in our past. Then we blink and find ourselves dealing with an eerily similar situation once again in a cold hospital room. Every birthday or special occasion is met with a tint of sadness as we wonder silently if we will get another opportunity next year to celebrate.
For for millions of families across the United States who are dealing with life-changing repercussions of a stroke- everyday is World Stroke Day. Loved ones of stroke victims may not be wearing ribbons or purchasing a certain color product to show solidarity in our love one’s health struggle- but we are hopefully that early detection and prevention education will spare the livelihood of others. Stroke victims are survivors. Every single day they continue to live through the fear of the unknown and struggle to come to terms with their new normal.
In the four minutes that it took you to read this article, someone has died from a stroke in the United States. One day it may be my mother. It may be your father or even you. Do not wear a certain color ribbon or post a Facebook status in honor of stroke survivors and their families. Educate yourself today and arm yourself with the knowledge to prevent strokes from destroying the lives of other families in the future.