There is nothing like a stroke to make a memorable first date.
It happened seven years ago when Shermane Winters-Wofford was 33. She hadn’t been on the dating scene for a while and thought the sharp pain in her side and shortness of breath was jitters.
“I just figured it was okay – I need to get over it,” she thought, as they were waiting to be seated at The Melting Pot. “And, on the contrary, it was a lot worse.”
Dinner was not in the plans that night. She was actually in the throes of a mild stroke.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. When this happens, adequate oxygen and nutrients don’t reach the brain, leading to the death of brain cells, which can cause severe disability and sometimes death. The brain’s blood supply can be disrupted when the blood vessels are blocked by blood clots or cholesterol and fatty-laden plaque or if the blood vessel breaks.
At the time, Winters-Wofford did not know the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke in women.
“I said, ‘Could you just take me home so I can go lay down?’” she remembered. “I felt bad enough to leave, but not smart enough to go to the hospital.”
Her date did his best to take better care of her.
“He kept on asking, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go to the doctor? I can take you to the doctor or you can go to an emergency room,’” she said.
“I just said, ‘No, just take me home.’”
She made it home, in the company of her date, but not for long.
“It started getting scary,” she said. “It was getting to the point where I could not catch my breath at all and my chest felt like someone did have my heart in their hand and they were squeezing it.”
Her movements became a lot slower she grew “very dizzy.”
Then her date, a St. Louis firefighter, took her to the emergency room at SSM DePaul Health Center and did not leave her side.
“My blood pressure was 179 over 159,” she said. “The nurse actually yelled at me, ‘You haven’t been taking your medicine – your blood pressure is through the roof!’
“I said, ‘What medicine?’”
Winters-Wofford had high blood pressure and did not know it. That’s why high blood pressure is described as “the silent killer.” If you are having symptoms, it’s usually something serious and even life-threatening.
“They said I was having a stroke – I couldn’t move my left arm,” she said.
And all of this took place in the course of about 45 minutes.
The American Heart Association says typical symptoms of stroke come on suddenly, without warning. They include:
- sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side
- sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- sudden problems walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
Women can have other symptoms of stroke. The National Stroke Association says these symptoms also come on suddenly and include face and limb pain, hiccups, nausea, general weakness, chest pain, shortness of breath and heart palpitations.
Winters-Wofford is the youngest of nine siblings and knew nothing of her family’s medical history. She was surprised to learn that her parents, sisters and brothers were all taking medication for high blood pressure. She is now on high blood pressure medicine as well.
She and her date who never left her side, Adam Wofford, married about a year later and now have a son, her second child. She had a healthy pregnancy.
It was about seven months into her third pregnancy a couple of years later that Winters-Wofford developed preeclampsia, which is pregnancy-induced hypertension (high blood pressure) and protein in the urine.
This serious complication in pregnancy occurs in about six to eight percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. and occurs most often in women who have a history of high blood pressure, are obese at the time of pregnancy, are under age 20 or over age 40, have pending multiple births, or have chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health says preeclampsia affects the placenta and the mother’s kidneys, liver and brain and can cause seizures, stroke, premature delivery or stillbirth.
Her doctor monitored the condition throughout her pregnancy. When her blood pressure spiked one day, he kept her overnight at St. John’s Mercy Health Care. Overnight turned into three weeks.
Her diet was watched, she was on complete bed rest, and they monitored both her and the baby. She said while the baby was doing fine, her blood pressure kept spiking.
The doctor said there was only one solution. She was induced to deliver a 3-pound baby boy nine weeks early.
“As soon as I had him, my blood pressure went back down,” she said. Her newborn spent several weeks in neonatal intensive care, and she breastfed to ensure he got off to a healthy start.
Episode number three
The following year, in 2007, Winters-Wofford was working as a sales manager at a downtown hotel. She was taking a potential client on a tour of the facility for an association meeting. It’s a good thing she brought along an intern.
“All of the sudden, this heat just came over me,” she said. “The next thing I know, the pain in my chest came.” It was a familiar pain – but “much more intense.” At 36, she was in the midst of having a second stroke.
She had the intern take over the tour, and after running to the elevator, Winters-Wofford laid on its floor because she couldn’t stand up anymore. When the door opened, she crawled out, to see her director of operations. Fortunately her husband, by then an emergency medical technician, was just around the corner. This time she sought treatment at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“They wheeled me back immediately, and I remember the lady saying, ‘Your blood pressure is 209 over 170-something,” Winters-Wofford said, who was asked her to raise her arms and couldn’t. “They put nitroglycerine on my tongue, and in a few hours I was fine again.”
Since then, she made a strong effort to increase her cardiovascular fitness and the proportion of fruits and vegetables in her diet. She is trying to keep her weight down. She also experiences trouble sleeping and a lingering effect from her strokes called aphasia, affecting her speech and pronunciation of words.
She jokes with her husband that she was never sick until she met him.
He lovingly responds by saying, “Your heart just can’t take all of this.”
For more information, visit the American Stroke Association at www.strokeassociation.org or the National Stroke Association stroke.org.
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