December 1, 2009 in Features

Stroke surprises victim

Symptoms affecting speech, memory, chalked up to stress
Colleen Lamay McClatchy

BOISE, Idaho – Jere Burch woke up one morning four years ago in a body so exhausted she could barely move and with a mouth that seemed to have a life of its own.

“When I started speaking, it was like garbage coming out,” Burch said. “It’s like you’re a puppet.” She called in sick and slept most of the day.

Burch – then just 43 – had suffered a stroke that hit the speech centers in her brain, but she eventually recovered most of the abilities taken from her as she slept.

In the days after Burch awoke profoundly different, she found that not only did it take her mouth a lot of time to get the right words out, but she had other puzzling symptoms, including sensitivity to light, crying for no reason and trouble writing e-mails.

She chalked it up to stress. After all, Burch had divorced a year earlier and was raising two teenage girls on her own. She also cared for her mother, who lived with the family, and she held down a full-time job as an executive at a small company.

It was more than 2 weeks before her condition was diagnosed as a stroke, and another 12 months before she began to feel somewhat normal.

She has no obvious disabilities, but she struggles a little every day. “I’m probably 85, 90 percent of what I was,” she said. “If I was paralyzed, then people would know something is wrong with me.” Burch is devoted to the goals of the heart and stroke associations – to help people ward off heart disease and stroke by eating right, exercising, knowing the warning signs of a heart attack or a stroke, and knowing when and how to get help.

Eating smart means giving yourself permission to savor every bite of the foods you love, said Dayle Hayes, a nutrition coach.

Her teachings cover how to eat chocolate. The right answer? Eat slowly, savoring every bite, giving your chocolate your full attention. If need be, let your kids do their homework in the kitchen while you retreat to a quiet room, alone with your chocolate.

The moral is that denying ourselves food we love won’t work in the long run.

“Anything that gets in the way of being able to eat the things we really enjoy probably isn’t going to last over the long run,” Hayes said.

Don’t add inches to your waist eating any old chocolate. Pick what you like the best. Enjoy it, but don’t expect it to cure heartache, boredom, procrastination. When the chocolate is gone, your demon will return.

Proper nutrition will help stave off heart disease and strokes, but it’s not a cure-all. Burch ate well and exercised regularly. She didn’t have high blood pressure, diabetes or other known risk factors for stroke.

Burch went to her doctor a week after she woke up a different person. The doctor ordered a test of her heart. “Everything came back fine because my heart was healthy,” Burch said. “I had no heart disease.” After another week of trying to get by as normally as possible, she noticed more troubles, including short-term memory loss. She went back to her doctor, who ordered an MRI, a type of medical imaging that shows “slices” of the human body.

Within a couple of hours, she had a diagnosis: A stroke had broken the circuits in her brain that controlled speech.

Burch never dreamed she had suffered a stroke, but that’s not so unusual. Strokes don’t get as much public attention as heart disease.

“I think that people are more aware of the symptoms of heart attacks because they have been so widely broadcast,” said Dr. Mary River, stroke director at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. The Boise hospital recently won special recognition of its stroke care from a national accreditation agency.

The past decade has seen big improvements in the care of stroke victims. One is the clot-busting drug tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, approved for use in certain patients’ heart attack or stroke patients. The drug can dissolve blood clots, which cause most heart attacks and strokes.

To be effective, tPA must be given within the first few hours of a stroke, not in two weeks, as happened to Burch.

She underwent speech therapy and other treatments to help her regain what she lost to a blood clot in her brain. She underwent testing to make sure she could make decisions and continue to seek management-level work. She could.

During her entire ordeal, she doesn’t remember missing much more than one day of work, except for medical appointments.

“I’m a survivor,” Burch said. “As a single mom and the breadwinner, you kind of just keep going.”

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