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Ruth Wolfe was on the phone with her husband when the device inexplicably slipped out of her right hand. Seconds later her whole right side started to droop.
Fearing she might be having a stroke, Wolfe stabbed the redial button on her phone, but all she could get out was garbled gibberish when she reached him.
“My thoughts were forming but I couldn’t speak the words,” she told TODAY. “I knew I needed to get help quickly.”
Wolfe’s experience is all too common. Every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke, according to the National Stroke Association. And women are the ones most often affected. In fact, strokes kill twice as many women each year as breast cancer does.
Wolfe was lucky. Her husband, a retired fireman, knew the symptoms of stroke and realized his wife was having one when he heard her garbled speech. He rushed to her side and got her help right away.
“Because we knew the signs I got immediate treatment,” Wolfe said. “I survived and just last weekend I stood watching proudly as my daughter graduated from college.”
Wolfe not only survived, but also went back to her old life coaching girl’s softball. “I knew they needed me and I wasn’t going to let [the stroke] set me back,” she said. “I had to come back strong. I had to show people that even when you have a stroke you go on with your life.”
Doctors say more people would survive strokes if we all recognized the symptoms. A simple mnemonic can help save lives: FAST.
The “F” is for face: stroke will often cause one side of the face to weaken and droop.
The “A” is for arm: one arm may become weak and the person may not be able to lift it
The “S” is for speech: a person having a stroke often can’t come up with words or will say the wrong ones.
The “T” is for time: a reminder that time is of the essence and 911 should be called if someone is showing the signs of stroke.
'Time is brain'
Time is extraordinarily important for survival and recovery, said neurologist Dr. Carolyn Brockington, director of the stroke center at Mount Sinai Roosevelt Hospital in New York.“As we like to say, ‘time is brain,’ and every moment that goes by with the brain not getting enough blood flow and there’s the potential for significant injury,” Brockington said. “So we want people to act fast. Everybody googles symptoms or calls a friend, but what you really want to do is call 911 and get to the closest hospital as quickly as possible.”
Strokes don’t just strike the middle aged and elderly.
"It can happen at any age so everyone should know the signs and symptoms of stroke and what to do about it," said Brockington.
At 28 Carolyn Roth thought she was healthy. But one day at the gym she developed an excruciating headache. “I thought I injured my neck,” she said. “Assuming I pulled a muscle, I took some pain killers.”
On the drive home from the gym she had some perplexing experiences. “I started to have these visualizations,” she said. “I thought there was water on my phone, that there were diamonds in the road. But it still didn’t make me think that there was something wrong.”
That was two days before her sister’s wedding. The night before the wedding, as she was lying in bed next to her sister, Roth had a stroke.
“I never made it to her wedding,” Roth said. “She’s crying in many of her wedding pictures and my brother had to take over and make the maid-of-honor speech.
A single woman, Roth leaned on her family to help her through the experience.
“I was determined to come back strong and ran in the New York City Marathon as a survivor,” she said. “And last September I walked down the aisle at my own beautiful wedding.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”