The stroke came out of nowhere.
It was November 2021, and Jenny Shin was on the way to a work assignment when it happened. Her sister was driving, and Jenny was in the passenger seat on a phone call.
“My vision became blurry. I started seeing rainbow-coloured balls in my left eye and remember thinking, ‘something’s not right’,” she recalls.
She tried to rub the blurriness away. She had a busy day ahead — a photo shoot with a client, some meetings — there was a lot to do. As a public relations professional in Toronto and a self-proclaimed workaholic, she needed to get on with her day.
Instead, the blurriness worsened and she started feeling dizzy. The 47-year-old tried to tell the person on the phone that something was wrong, and she had to end the call.
“That’s when I heard screaming on the line and the person was saying, ‘Jenny, are you okay?’’’
She soon realized that her speech was affected — instead of words, garbled sounds were coming out.
Jenny also noticed her right hand wasn’t working when she had difficulty putting her sunglasses away.
“I was sort of bracing myself for something,” she remembers.
Another unexpected injury
Jenny’s sister reacted quickly by taking her to get help. Jenny felt her symptoms escalating — she was feeling disoriented and even more dizzy.
They ended up at a near by hospital and while trying to get out of the car, she had a devastating fall and hit the pavement. The impact broke Jenny’s neck.
“My sister let out a scream, and emergency personnel came out immediately,” she remembers.
Jenny was then rushed by ambulance to Sunnybrook, which is one of nine regional stroke centres in Ontario.
“When I arrived at Sunnybrook, it was a huge relief,” says Jenny, “I saw the doctors, nurses, everyone in scrubs — it was like a well-oiled machine.”
“Jenny’s stroke and neck fracture both required immediate attention,” says Dr. Houman Khosravani, medical director of the inpatient stroke unit at Sunnybrook. “Her neck and spine needed to be kept immobilized, and our teams then worked very quickly to treat her stroke as the priority. We took special care to rescue the brain while maintaining mechanical and medical stability with the neck injury.”
An ischemic stroke is a medical emergency that happens when blood suddenly stops flowing to the brain. Oxygen and nutrients can no longer reach the brain and its cells begin to die.
The saying “time is brain” is a key message from stroke teams. It means when an individual starts showing symptoms of a stroke, every minute counts. The longer a stroke is left untreated, the greater chance of injury to the brain. There’s a crucial 4.5-hour window from onset of symptoms, where stroke patients can receive clot-busting medication or surgery, which can help remove blood clots that lead to stroke. Both can potentially restore blood flow and limit disability after a stroke.
Jenny arrived in time and was prepped for surgery.
“We successfully removed a clot from one of the brain blood vessels using a procedure called a mechanical thrombectomy,” explains Dr. Leo da Costa, neurosurgeon and medical director of Sunnybrook’s Centre for Neurovascular Intervention. “With any stroke case, it is important for patients and families to seek medical attention quickly.”
Facing a new reality
The stroke left Jenny paralyzed on her right side. Due to her neck injury, she had to wear a neck brace to keep her safe.
A fiercely independent person, Jenny soon realized she had to adjust to the situation.
“At one point I could not lift a finger, or move my foot or anything.”
Although her new reality was frustrating, Jenny says “I had made peace with myself and the prospect of being permanently paralyzed.”
Still, Jenny kept trying to move her muscles. After being admitted to Sunnybrook’s inpatient stroke unit, she didn’t give up. Eventually, she was able to move her fingers and toes.
“I was relieved, and cautiously optimistic.” Jenny also says the support she received from the health-care team helped make a huge difference in her recovery.
“I remember a day when I was trying to brush my hair and I was having a very hard time with it. One of the nurses noticed, but knowing my independent spirit, she stood by and kept an eye on me,” Jenny recalls. “She just helped to lift my elbow a bit to help make it easier. She didn’t take the brush away and start doing it for me. This nurse offered the most beautiful and dignified way of lending support so I could continue to do it myself. I don’t know if she’ll ever know how much I appreciated that.”
Stroke at any age
Experts say that there is a general misconception that stroke only affects the elderly but in reality, stroke can happen to anyone no matter the age.
Typical risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, history of smoking, diabetes, and/or sleep apnea.
“In general, to reduce the risk of stroke, it’s important for individuals to be active, exercise, and have healthy lifestyle habits” says Dr. Khosravani.
At 47 years old, Jenny says she’s always been aware that stroke can strike anyone, but like most people, wasn’t expecting it to happen to her.
Dr. da Costa says Jenny’s stroke appears to have been caused by an issue in a carotid artery, one of the major blood vessels in the neck that transports blood to the brain.
“There’s a tear in the wall of the blood vessel and that forms a clot,” explains Dr. da Costa. “In general, this could happen for various reasons, some patients have underlying or undetected issues with the vessels and sometimes it is related to injuries.”
Rebuilding strength and function after stroke
In the weeks and months following her stroke, Jenny worked with physical and occupational therapists in the Stroke & Neurological Rehabilitation program at St. John’s Rehab to regain use of her right hand and build strength in her right leg.
“When clients come in, we work together to help them set their goals. It’s very much a team approach,” says Vidya Umaibalan, an occupational therapist at St. John’s.
“With Jenny, we’ve been working on high level balance, her mobility and flexibility – getting the range back and coordination,” says Hina Khatri, a physical therapist.
“I’m also working on fine motor skills – typing and doing finger exercises to help the tiny muscles in my fingers remember how to do physical tasks again,” says Jenny.
In addition to rebuilding day-to-day skills, the team also helped Jenny get back on her feet. When she was strong enough, she tried walking in high heeled shoes again, which she’d worn every day for work prior to her stroke. Jenny and the team took it one step at a time. Her team also provided recommendations for alternative footwear for non-work-related situations.
“It took some getting used to again and they were so encouraging,” Jenny smiles.
“I feel truly blessed to be able to be part of someone’s life and help them get them to where they want to be,” says Hina.
“Being part of that journey with patients means so much — helping them understand that they can adjust to a new normal, and that the stroke doesn’t define them,” adds Vidya.
That’s certainly the case for Jenny, whose positivity and hard work has continued throughout her journey.
“It’s been challenging but I’m working with an incredible team. The saintly support and care I received at Sunnybrook leaves me in awe and humbled,” Jenny smiles.
“What could have turned out to be one of the most traumatic experiences of my life has instead become one of the most positive. Through the compassion and education I received at Sunnybrook, I feel empowered to flourish (versus just surviving) as I move forward with confidence in the second chapter of my life.”