Solving the crossword puzzle is one of my long-standing morning rituals. On Tuesday morning, I noticed a very slight difficulty filling in the boxes. My handwriting seemed to be a little sloppier than usual. I didn’t give it any thought and went to work at the usual time.
Climbing the back stairs to my second-floor office, I noticed a slight limp. I attributed it to a bit of bursitis in my left leg. I get that every now and then, and take an ibuprofen for that slight discomfort. I spent the day at work, as usual.
On Wednesday, I had to concentrate to fill in the boxes in the crossword. Getting ready for work, I nicked myself shaving—I use an old-style double-edged razor that requires considerable attention and dexterity. Climbing the stairs, the limp was more pronounced—but I knew it was not because of any pain in my knee. My left leg was definitely weaker than my right.
I had just begun coverage at Kaiser, and called the advice nurse. They could not find my record number because I had not yet been entered into their database. I promised myself I’d get that taken care of that afternoon.
On Thursday morning, I knew shaving with my favorite vintage razor would be far too risky; my right hand was not doing what I wanted it to do. Worse, an action as simple as combing my hair seemed to be beyond my capability. Just raising my right arm took an effort. And the limp was worse. Much worse. At times, I felt as though my right leg might buckle.
I have read about stokes. The first thing they ask the stroke victim is to smile, to stick out his tongue and to speak a simple sentence. I grinned at myself in the mirror, stuck out my tongue, talked aloud. So far, so good.
But there was that limp. And my disobedient hand.
I called Kaiser. I was now in their system. I spoke to the advice nurse and told her my symptoms. She said she’d have to confer with a doctor, but promised to return to me within five minutes.
“Have someone drive you to emergency,” she said when she returned in three or four minutes.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I can drive myself with no problem.”
“No!” she said firmly. “Do NOT try to drive. Do you have someone to drive you, or should I send an ambulance?” My thoughts were swirling at this point. The advice nurse was adamant. I called my partner and asked if she’d mind giving me a lift to Emergency. She was at my door in less than ten minutes.
There were few people in the waiting room, and the admitting nurse seemed to be expecting me. She immediately sat me down, took my vitals and put me in an exam room, where I was hooked up to an EKG. Over the next eight hours I was seen by two neurologists, two internists and an emergency medicine physician. I gave them a lot of blood, had two CT scans and answered the same questions to half a dozen medical professionals. (Can you smile? Stick out your tongue? What day is this? Can you feel this pin on your leg?)
Finally, the neurologist came to speak with me. She said I had had a “small” stroke, but the CT scans showed normal blood flow through my carotid artery—some very important good news. And there was no evidence of bleeding in my brain. If I had delayed any longer, the outcome would almost certainly have been worse—much worse.
They have put me on blood pressure and cholesterol medication, along with one lowly 325 mg aspirin each day. It is clear that my unregulated blood pressure was the culprit. “It’s a pretty good wake-up call,” the neurologist told me with a small smile.
The prognosis is good; although I still have an annoying limp and my right hand doesn’t work quite right, I already see tiny improvements. For one thing, I got through today’s crossword puzzle more easily. I was able—with effort—to comb my hair. I will take my meds religiously—Losartan for blood pressure, Plavix for cholesterol and aspirin to thin my blood. I’ll start physical therapy the first part of the week. That should hasten my recovery.
Why do I say it was “just a stroke—thank God”? It could have been so much worse, for one thing. That little wake-up call could have been more like an air horn, rather than the comparatively gentle alarm I experienced. I could have denied there was anything wrong and taken no action at all. As it was, I sought medical attention within the critical first 24 hours after the event.
Hypertension is nothing to trivialize or ignore. It is a condition whose only symptom is often a stroke—sometimes a drastic, life-altering one—and sometimes death. No warnings, just…lights out. My blood pressure has always been on the high side, but I have not taken medication for the last two or three years. After all, I had no symptoms.
Diagnosing and treating high blood pressure is ridiculously easy. Pharmacies have free blood pressure machines, and the medications used to treat the disease are effective and carry few if any adverse side effects for most people.
It’s hard to imagine being struck down by some disease, mundane or exotic; but it does happen. It’s worth keeping the odds as much in our favor as we can.
Now, about that colonoscopy….