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Experiencing a stroke at 28 made me realize I wasn't invincible

I was unaware I had a medical condition until I woke up one day in a hospital room.
Cara Zizzo
/ Source: TODAY

In TMRW’s “My First” series, we highlight true stories from readers who open up about the pivotal moments in their lives — from their first jobs to their first breakups and more — and what they learned from these personal milestones.

It could happen to anybody.

You could be young and healthy, you could have no symptoms or risk factors, and it could still happen — you could find yourself having a health emergency.

I was all these things and just 28 years old when I suffered an acute ischemic stroke, one of the worst types of strokes you can have.

It was Sunday, July 6, 2014, and I’d recently moved back to my hometown of Chicago after a few years working in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I'd met up with a friend for brunch and we'd decided to go shopping together.

Cara Zizzo (center) the day before she experienced a stroke.
Cara Zizzo (center) the day before she experienced a stroke.Courtesy of Cara Zizzo

In the checkout line, I started experiencing something I’d never felt before. It was weird and I felt discombobulated; I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I’d had fainting spells in the past due to anxiety, but this was different. By the time I reached my car, I couldn’t even put my key into the trunk lock so I asked my friend to drive us instead.

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As my friend started pulling out of the parking garage, I lost consciousness but I don’t remember passing out.

I came to as I was lying face down on a stretcher. Paramedics were running a pinwheel-like tool along my legs and asking my friend whether or not we'd been taking drugs (we had not). They were surprised because I didn’t fit the mold of a typical stroke patient, but suspected I was having one and quickly transported me to a local hospital known for its stroke program.

The next thing I remember, I was waking up at the hospital. I thought only an hour had passed but I learned from my sister that doctors had put me in a medically induced coma; my mother was at my bedside and explained to me that two days had gone by and it was now Tuesday. I didn’t believe I had had a stroke and I tried to get up from my hospital bed, saying, “I got to go to work.”

I ended up staying in the hospital for over two weeks.

As a healthy 28-year-old, Zizzo's experience was puzzling to doctors until they discovered she'd been born with a small hole in her heart.
As a healthy 28-year-old, Zizzo's experience was puzzling to doctors until they discovered she'd been born with a small hole in her heart. Cara Zizzo

Following my stroke, doctors ran tests to try to figure out why a young, healthy 28-year-old like me would have one in the first place. I didn’t use hormonal birth control and I don’t smoke so they were really dumbfounded. Eventually, they found out I had a patent foramen ovale, or PFO for short. That means a part of my heart didn’t close up when I was born; essentially, I had a hole in my heart. Many people can live with a PFO without it ever being detected, but some studies show that the disorder is more common in people with unexplained strokes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In addition to this preexisting condition, my cholesterol spiked (this wasn't caused by the PFO, but more likely from reintroducing hot dogs, pizza and french fries into my diet). Eventually, three blood clots developed and traveled to my brain, leading to a stroke.

After my stroke, my speech was messed up. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t talk, my eyes were going two different ways, I had short-term memory loss and I would lose my balance so I had to wear a bracelet that indicated to the hospital staff that I was a fall risk. But since I was taken to the hospital so quickly, doctors were able to intervene and prevent permanent damage to my memory and motor skills.

On my road to recovery, I had surgery to fix my PFO and doctors put me on a daily cholesterol medicine. I went to rehab and later speech therapy. By September, I had been released from the hospital and was able to return to work as a publicist for a restaurant and hospitality business.

I still have trouble recalling certain words sometimes and have to describe what I want to say. For example, I might ask, “What’s that bug that doesn’t die?” and someone might have to prompt me with, “cockroach?” Otherwise, I would say I am fully recovered. As for my eyes, I woke up one day and they had just gone back to normal. I don’t have any other physical side effects.

Zizzo and her boyfriend vacationing in the Bahamas.
Zizzo and her boyfriend vacationing in the Bahamas.Courtesy of Cara Zizzo

Five years after my stroke, I’m still considering how it continues to affect my life. My boyfriend and I have started talking about getting married and possibly having kids. Because pregnant women are more prone to blood clots and can’t be on the cholesterol medication that I take, I had to see a high-risk specialist to determine what is best for me going forward. I asked my specialist in my first visit, “Have you had patients that have had strokes and gotten pregnant?” and she said, “Yes, all the time. It’s not that big of a deal. We just need a plan set in stone so you can have a safe and healthy pregnancy.”

I could have potentially died and yes, that is scary.

I wanted to share my story because I want people my age to know what could happen, particularly if you have an underlying medical condition you might not know about or you haven't seen a doctor to get your cholesterol tested. I remember I couldn’t find much information online about young people and strokes after it happened to me, and could only find information about post-stroke symptoms in the elderly. Perhaps because I'm younger, I’ve had a different recovery journey.

I've had one serious health scare, and it could happen again. But beyond being scary, the experience was eye-opening. I've learned we need to take good care of ourselves, listen to our bodies, and know that we're not invincible — and that what happened to me could happen to anybody.