It was a cold January morning as I was driving to work that day. Friday… I was ecstatic and full of plans for the weekend. My only thought was to get through the day, as I was supposed to deliver a 1.5 hour lecture/training to a room full of people. I defended theses and delivered speeches before, but not to 50+ people at a time.
As I was driving in, a lingering headache promised to ensure my day was not perfect, but I brushed it off as a nuisance. It wasn’t even strong enough to take a Tylenol.
As I stood in front of the 50+ people a couple of hours later, I started to feel a bit off. The headache was still persistent and I was getting hungry. I was only 15 weeks pregnant, but already had plenty of symptoms and definitely did not want to push myself to embarrassment. There was also an annoying blind spot that I blamed on the PowerPoint Presentation and the screen that was a little too bright for the dark room I was in. I took a few minutes break to drink some water and eat a banana, and finished the training lecture.
As I went back to my cubicle after lunch, I started to worry about the blind spot that didn’t disappear. Dark spots from staring at bright screens usually disappear within minutes, but mine was still there an hour later and interfering with my work. I gave my hubby a call and he convinced me to visit a hospital, as he read somewhere that visual disturbances in pregnancies must be investigated.
At the Sunnybrook emergency department, my eye was probed by at least five doctors. Blood, urine, all tests came back negative. Nobody was sure why I had a blind spot. My attending physician said: “Humour me. It is really low on my list, but I would like you to get an MRI to rule out stroke.”
It was 2 a.m. and I was dead tired, it took convincing from my husband for me to go through with it. A few hours later, the doctor asked me to sit down prior to delivering the news that I did, indeed, have a stroke in the visual cortex, which explained the blind spot.
Diagnosed with a stroke
Of course I burst into tears. I was a healthy female, I just climbed the CN tower for United Way and worked during the summer as a Running Room running instructor. I have no history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, no family history of heart disease, stroke, or anything really.
I spent a week in the C4 stroke ward at Sunnybrook. At the end of the week, after meeting all of the Neurology team, my diagnosis was not much clearer. All the possible tests were performed and the answer still eluded the team with 100 per cent certainty. “Pregnancy hormones caused migraines, which restricted blood flow to certain parts of the brain.” “Migrainous infarct” was the official diagnosis on my chart.
Six weeks later, I had another stroke. Also at work, with the same symptoms: light headache, “off feeling,” hunger, blind spot. This time I did not wait, my husband took me straight to Sunnybrook for an MRI and another official diagnosis of a second stroke.
I did not return to work after my second stroke and took a short-term leave, as it was safer for everybody if I was somewhat confined. I was officially a high-risk pregnancy, was transferred to the care of a high-risk obstetrician and was a regular at Sunnybrook’s Neurology department, which continued to administer numerous tests.
I consider myself lucky; despite two holes in my brain, I’m still myself. I have a little blind spot in my right eye, but it stopped bothering me long ago. My baby was born absolutely healthy, and after that second stroke I have had no more “episodes.” Although I still can’t get life insurance, as no company wants to cover me.
Two years later, there is still no certainty as to what exactly happened during that first pregnancy.
Moving forward: second pregnancy after stroke
I am now pregnant with my second (I am almost full term!). This pregnancy was largely uneventful. I still have morning sickness and seem to catch every bug from my son’s daycare, but I would take that many times over the diagnosis of another hole in my brain.
My family, friends and acquaintances have mixed feelings towards my pregnancies. Many forgot about the strokes and are happy about the new addition. Others question my English and my awareness of what stroke is (as if I invented this diagnosis myself). Some say that it could not have been a stroke, as I did not have the symptoms they advertise on TV. Those who believed in my story largely think I am crazy for having another kid after what had happened.
To those who think I’m either brave or stupid, I can answer that my inspiration and bravery to have another child came largely from a patient I met during my neurology visits. She was a heavily pregnant lady, who also had two strokes during early pregnancy with her first. When I met her, she was pregnant with twins, and told me her second pregnancy was “uneventful.”
That gave me hope – life goes on; if I get the chance of getting pregnant again, I am definitely going for it. I am taking my chances.