Leean Hendrix was like any other 26-year-old. She ran almost every day. She swam. The only thing atypical was that as 1998's Miss Arizona, she competed in the Miss America pageant.
But last July, her life became anything but normal.
"I was home doing laundry just like any other day," the Ahwatukee Foothills resident said. "My boyfriend stopped over on his way out of town to give me one last chance to go with him. But I had too many things to do so I told him I couldn’t."
Then, something happened.
"All of the sudden, it felt like the muscles in the back of my eyes broke," she said. "It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t have any control over my vision. It literally felt like my eyes were doing loopdee-loops in my head."
Hendrix asked her boyfriend to look into her eyes to see if something was wrong. He didn’t see a thing.
"I stood up and knew something serious was going on," Hendrix said. "My right side had started to go. It felt like warm water was being poured from the top of my head down. I was bumping into walls. By the time I got to the bathroom, I saw the right side of my face was droopy. I said, ‘I think I’m having a stroke.’ "
Hendrix was right. Although strokes are more common than heart attacks among the young, they are still rare. Fewer than 1 percent of Arizonans will have a stroke before they turn 35. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to your brain is interrupted and brain tissue is deprived of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die.
"I never associated strokes with young people," Hendrix said. "I thought it was something only my grandma or grandpa could have."
Hendrix’s stroke was caused by patent ductus arteriosus, one of the of the more common congenital heart defects. A PDA is a small hole in the heart that everyone is born with. In most people, it closes after birth. Hendrix’s never did.
"While strokes in young people are uncommon, the variety of conditions that cause strokes are much more numerous than in the older population," said Dr. Lawrence Teitel, a neurologist at CIGNA’s C.J. Harris Health Care Center in Tempe.
The primary causes of stroke in young people are cardiac disorders such as Hendrix’s, clotting disturbances and blood vessel disorders not related to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In older adults, stroke is caused by atherosclerosis in the majority of cases. Smoking, drinking and drug abuse also contribute to the incidence of stroke in the young.
"Even though the causes of the stroke are quite different, the actual features of the stroke — language impairment, sensory loss, weakness — are identical in older and younger people," Teitel said. "Once the brain is injured, there will be the same outcome, the same chance of impairment and the same chance of recovery."
Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States, according to the Health Care Financing Administration. While 50 percent to 70 percent of stroke survivors regain functional independence, 15 percent to 30 percent are permanently disabled.
"After my stroke, I just wanted to stay in bed and lie to myself, and say, ‘This isn’t happening to me,’ " said Hendrix, who had physical and occupational therapy three or four times per week during recovery. "I wanted to think that I was normal and fine even though I couldn’t walk up and down stairs, drive, make my own food or do my own hair."
Stroke survivors, particularly young people, often battle depression, said David Pfohl, regional director of the American Stroke Association.
"They struggle to get back to normal, but what was normal prior to stroke won’t be normal anymore," Pfohl said. "They might improve, but they might not get back to where they were prior to stroke. The key is for them to accept that and build on it."
Hendrix said the emotional aspect of having a stroke was the toughest part for her.
"You lose confidence in yourself in every way," said Hendrix, who still isn’t able to drive much, occasionally stutters and has difficulty with small motor skills because of the stroke’s impact on her right hand. "I went from being on national television in the Miss America Pageant to not being able to order a pizza over the phone or go to the grocery store because I felt like I had big neon sign over me saying something’s wrong."
Hendrix, who planned to go back to school to study broadcast journalism, didn’t let her stroke deter her for long. Just three weeks after her stroke, Hendrix enrolled in Mesa Community College, hoping its smaller classes would make the transition back to her previous life smoother.
"The more I try not to have the ‘why me?’ attitude, the easier it gets," said Hendrix, whose looks and personality are just as vibrant as they were before the stroke. "I made myself go back to be part of the living world instead of sitting on my couch looking out the window and watching it."
Stroke risk factors
The American Heart Association said these are the stroke risk factors you can change, treat or control:
High blood pressure: This is the single most important risk factor of stroke. Know your blood pressure and have it checked at least once every two years. It should be lower than 140/90.
Diabetes mellitus: Diabetes is treatable, but having it still increases a person’s risk of stroke. People with diabetes often also have high blood pressure and are overweight, increasing their stroke risk even more. If you have diabetes, work closely with your doctor to manage it. Heart disease: People with heart disease have a higher risk for stroke. Atrial fibrillation, which causes an irregular heartbeat, is a significant risk factor for stroke. Heart attack is the major cause of death among stroke survivors. TIAs: A TIA (trans ischemic attack) is a "mini" stroke that lasts a short time and goes away without causing permanent damage. Recognizing and treating TIAs can reduce your risk of a major stroke.
It’s very important to recognize the warning signs of a TIA or stroke. Call 911 or get medical attention immediately if they occur. Carotid artery disease: The carotid arteries in your neck supply blood to your brain. A carotid artery narrowed by a fatty buildup of plaque (atherosclerosis) may become blocked by a blood clot, causing a stroke.
RISK FACTORS REQUIRING A LIFESTYLE CHANGE
Many people don’t realize that stroke is usually predictable and often preventable. Here are the risk factors you can modify:
• Don’t use tobacco in any form.
• Be active and reach and maintain a healthy body weight.
• Drink only in moderation or not at all.
• Don’t use illegal drugs.
RISK FACTORS YOU CAN’T CHANGE
These are the risk factors you can’t do anything about:
• The older you get, the greater your risk.
• If close blood relatives have had strokes, you’re at higher risk. And members of certain racial groups, such as blacks, have a higher risk.
• If you’ve had a stroke, you have a greater chance of having another one.