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When Doctors Insisted My Stroke Symptoms Were Psychological

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Editor's Note

The author, Adrienne Wood, passed away on September 6, 2017. In her obituary it reads, “Adrienne was a very vocal advocate for those that struggled with mental illness and she passionately fought to remove the stigma that often accompanies mental illness, depression, suicide, and similar diseases.” We’re thankful to have her work on The Mighty, and send our love to her friends and family.

At age 34 I had a major stroke due to two dissected carotid arteries and a dissected vertebral artery. However, prior to this major stroke, I had three mini strokes. Unfortunately, because I also have struggled with major depression for several years, despite the fact that I went to the hospital after these mini strokes, the doctors did not believe me. They actually told me they thought I was making the whole thing up; one doctor even said he thought I just wanted attention and therefore was making up the mini strokes.

One happened to occur when I was in Northern California for my sister’s wedding. I went to the hospital, but was treated the same way. The doctors there hardly ran any tests and told me they thought I was malingering. I ended up checking myself out of the hospital against medical advice so I could attend my sister’s wedding, especially considering the doctors at that hospital just thought I was there for the attention and weren’t running any tests to see if there was anything wrong.

After my sister’s wedding, I returned to my home in San Diego. I was still concerned about what had been going on, even if the doctors had written me off due to my history with major depression. I knew something was wrong.

Then one night in June I went to bed, and when I woke up I couldn’t move my entire right side or speak. I sleep with my cell phone next to my bed, and I grabbed my phone with my left hand. I also got out of bed and for some reason was concerned that the emergency personnel wouldn’t be able to get into my apartment because my front door was locked and dead bolted. I’m not sure why, but I decided I wouldn’t call 911 until I had unlocked my front door.

I was unable to walk or even crawl from my bedroom to my front door, but discovered I was able to slide on my left side. It took me an hour to get to my front door, mainly because I passed out three times on the way. Thankfully by the time I got to my front door I had also gotten about half of my voice back, so I was able to call 911 and they could understand me well enough to know what was going on.

I was taken to the hospital, where they also saw my history of major depression. Instead of doing the usual testing they do on someone who comes in with stroke symptoms, they called in a psych consultant. When that happened, I asked the nurse to contact a good friend of mine, let her know what was going on and ask if she could come to the hospital to support and help me out, especially since my voice was not completely back and I was unable to fully advocate for myself.

My friend arrived at the hospital and did an awesome job of advocating for me. She was there during the psych consultation and advocated for me. The psychiatrist determined it was not a psych issue; however, the ER doctors still felt it was a psych issue, and it took several hours before they decided to run tests like an MRI to check for a stroke. While all of this was going on, especially the hours of waiting, I was laying there scared, knowing there was something wrong with me because I still could not move my right side, but they were not taking me seriously. My friend was able to advocate for me to be admitted overnight for observation, otherwise the doctors would have discharged me, despite the fact I still could not even walk or move my right side.

Late that night, they eventually did an MRI scan to check for a stroke. However, it was not until the next morning that the doctor came in to notify me that I had a stroke the day before. I was 34 at the time, and my stroke was caused by a dissection (a tear) in my left internal carotid artery, and I also had dissections in my right internal carotid and vertebral arteries. The dissections were apparently caused by a genetic condition I had not known I had.

The dissection in my left carotid artery was severe enough that they had to put two stents in that artery, and I even spent some time in the ICU following the procedure. Altogether I ended up spending almost three weeks in the hospital — all of this after the doctors were ready to discharge me just because I have a history of depression. I am very thankful for my friend who came to the ER that initial day of the stroke and advocated for me; she literally saved my life.

At the age of 34, strokes were not on my mind. Today I have fully recovered all feeling on my right side and my voice is back. But this experience taught me that you have got to advocate for yourself, and if you are unable to, it is important to have someone else there to advocate for you.

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Thinkstock photo by NilsBV.

Originally published: September 19, 2017
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