30-year-old local stroke survivor recalls 'scariest day' of her life

At 30 years old, Christie Fleming experienced a stroke.

April 7, 2016, was the scariest day of my life.

The day before started out as a normal Thursday, except for a headache that would not go away. I’ve suffered migraines since I was in the sixth grade, so nothing seemed terribly unusual about this particular episode. I left work and went to straight to bed at 5:30 p.m. after taking some over-the-counter pain medicine.

I woke up on April 7 feeling better, but as I was brushing my teeth before work, I noticed some numbness in my lips and face. I thought I had just slept weird and continued with my daily routine. Aside from the dull headache throughout the morning, I felt fine.

In the afternoon, I drove home for lunch and to let my dogs out.  As I bent down to pet the dogs, I suddenly, and without any warning, realized that I could not feel my arms. Panic set in when I clapped my hands to get the dogs’ attention and everything sounded muffled.  I tried to calm myself down, thinking it was just an anxiety attack.

I was walking out the front door, heading back to my car when I smelled something foul – I looked down and saw vomit on my shirt. At some point, and without realizing, I had thrown up on myself.

I went upstairs to get changed and wash up, and when I looked in the mirror, the left side of my face had drooped. Halfway down the stairs, my legs felt like 100-pound weights.  I held on to the railing and knew that I needed to call for help; something was definitely wrong.

But at 30 years old, a stroke never even crossed my mind.

I managed to get my mother on the phone, but she had no clue what I was trying to say to her.  Today she describes it as a sound she’d never heard before, like a high-pitched squeal.  In my mind, I was speaking normally. She told me to call for an ambulance.

I dialed 911, and I’m so grateful the dispatcher could make out whatever words I was speaking.  Luckily, my neighbor is an EMT and was at home that day when he heard my name come over the scanner.  He was the first person I saw walk into my house, and a few minutes later, the ambulance was outside.

I was taken to Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, where they determined I was experiencing a massive ischemic stroke, and I was quickly given the life-saving tPA shot.  I spent the next six days in the ICU getting tested for everything under the sun.

Doctors discovered that I was born with a blood-clotting disorder, an MTHFR gene mutation.  This, combined with the birth control pills I’d been taking since I was a teen, created the “perfect storm.”

But my biggest battle was yet to come: I’d need to undergo months of therapy to learn how to function normally again.  Everything I had known was now foreign to me in the blink of an eye.

Today, 14 months later, I am truly blessed to be here with a successful recovery.  I still have no feeling on the left side of my body, distorted taste buds, balance and memory issues, but I will take these residual side effects over what could have been.

It hasn’t been easy adjusting to this new “normal” way of life, but I still have my independence and have worked diligently to become a healthier, better version of myself.

The face of stroke is not just of an elderly person as I once had perceived.  Stroke can happen to anyone at any age, including babies in utero.  I was given a second chance; I survived.  Now I’m sharing my story so that other lives can be saved.  I am also volunteering with the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association to warn of common everyday signs that should not be ignored:

  • Face Drooping,
  • Arm weakness,
  • Speech difficulty,
  • Time to call 911!

A note from the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association:

While Christie’s story is unique, it is unfortunately not as uncommon as one might suspect. Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States, responsible for one in every 20 deaths. An estimated 7.2 million Americans 20 and older have had a stroke. However, 80 percent of strokes are preventable and are largely treatable. AHA/ASA is currently working to support a bill that will ensure the more than 90 stroke centers in Pennsylvania receive additional certifications to become acute stroke-ready hospitals and comprehensive stroke centers, with the hope that more stroke victims, like Christie, will receive the care they need and make a successful recovery.