Carly White, a healthy 27-year-old girl, thought she was experiencing a terribly intense migraine on July 30.
The symptoms were severe: she was vomiting and shaking, and she had double vision. But she was prone to migraines, so, when her symptoms worsened, she decided to try to just sleep it off.
But at 4.30am on July 31, she woke up to unbearable pain, and her head was hot to the touch.
She knew then something was wrong so the newlywed asked her husband, Nathanael, to take her to a local hospital in their town of Carmanville, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, on his way into work that Monday morning.
Carly never would have imagined that the ‘terrible headache’ she thought she was experiencing was actually a stroke.
But six days later she woke up from her coma to find out she’d had brain surgery and she was unable to speak or walk.
Now, Carly is sharing her story to warn others about the importance of seeking medical help if you think you are having a stroke, as doctors have told her that if she had come in even an hour later than she did on July 31, she would not have lived.
Sunday, July 30, was a typical day for Carly, who works at a restaurant called Mary Brown’s in Carmanville. That day she worked out with her husband and did ‘just normal things’ at her home.
But in the evening, she started experiencing what she thought were symptoms of an intense migraine. She started throwing up, and she was nauseous, out-of-breath and shaky.
She could not keep anything down, vomiting even when she drank water, she said. ‘I had the spinny head,’ Carly remembered, adding that she had double vision, which she did not know at the time was a symptom of a stroke.
Carly iced the back of her head, which was hurting particularly bad. But the ice pack did not work. ‘It wasn’t taking any of the pain away,’ she said.
After her surgery, Carly woke up with 27 stitches in the back of her head
Then, figuring it all amounted to a migraine – which she was prone to – Carly went to bed. ‘I took Advil and ignored the symptoms,’ she recalled.
But she woke up early the next morning to ‘unbearable pain’.
After reaching for the back of her head, which was throbbing, she realized it was abnormally warm. ‘It was on fire,’ Carly said. She added that she remembered thinking: ‘This is not right.’
She knew she needed to go to the doctor that day. ‘I just figured: “I’ll go on in.” I just wanted to figure out what was going on,’ Carly explained.
Nathanael, who works as a paramedic, took her to a local hospital called Gander James Paton Memorial on his way into work that Monday.
‘I thought they were going to give me a Tylenol and send me home,’ Carly said.
And when she first arrived, doctors were perplexed as to what was wrong with her. ‘At first they didn’t think it was a stroke,’ she said.
But she lost consciousness about 20 minutes after making it to the hospital. Carly explained: ‘My memory went in the blink of an eye.’
And 12 hours later, Nathanael received a phone call from the hospital staff. His wife was being airlifted to a facility with more resources in St. John’s, NL, Canada.
Carly was taken to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, and her husband raced there from Carmanville, which was four-and-a-half hours away, so that he could sign any medical treatment paperwork doctors needed him to approve.
And two days after Carly went to the hospital for what she thought was a headache she had brain surgery.
Her surgeons removed a ‘golf ball-sized’ amount of dead brain tissue that had caused a buildup of spinal fluid in her brain, which had induced her stroke.
Carly’s husband Nathanael (right) took all of his vacation days to be with his wife while she was in the hospital. The couple are pictured here in 2015
Carly and Nathanael got married in May 2016. She now works at a restaurant called Mary Brown’s and he works as a paramedic
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY: CARLY RELEARNS HOW TO USE HER LEFT SIDE
WHAT IS A STROKE?
There are two kinds of stroke:
1. ISCHEMIC STROKE
An ischemic stroke – which accounts for 80 percent of strokes – occurs when there is a blockage in a blood vessel that prevents blood from reaching part of the brain. This is what happened to Carly.
2. HEMORRHAGIC STROKE
The more rare, a hemorrhagic stroke, occurs when a blood vessel bursts, flooding part of the brain with too much blood while depriving other areas of adequate blood supply.
It can be the result of an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation (an abnormal cluster of blood vessels), in the brain.
Thirty percent of subarachnoid hemorrhage sufferers die before reaching the hospital. A further 25 percent die within 24 hours. And 40 percent of survivors die within a week.
Age, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, family history, and history of a previous stroke or TIA are all risk factors for having a stroke.
SYMPTOMS OF A STROKE
Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Of the roughly three out of four people who survive a stroke, many will have life-long disabilities.
This includes difficulty walking, communicating, eating, and completing everyday tasks or chores.
Both are potentially fatal, and patients require surgery or a drug called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) within three hours to save them.
Carly did not regain consciousness until nearly a week after her operation. ‘I remember waking up six days later,’ she recalled. And at that point, the realization of what had happened hit her.
She remembered thinking: ‘It wasn’t a migraine. It was a stroke.’
Carly stayed in the hospital until August 15, when she was transferred to a rehab facility in St. John’s called the Miller Centre.
The move from the hospital was bittersweet: it excited her because it meant she was making progress, but it also saddened her because the staff at the Health Sciences Centre had been good to her.
‘I got used to the walls of the hospital. I got used to the nurses,’ Carly remembered.
Because the part of her brain that was operated on was close to the section that controls motor skills, Carly had to relearn how to talk and walk after her surgery.
At first, she could only whisper, but her voice continually became stronger when she was in rehab.
She worked with a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and a physiotherapist at the Miller Centre.
‘The first day I did three steps, and I was so excited,’ Carly remembered. The next day, though, she did 375 steps.
‘I felt like such a little kid,’ Carly said about the process of relearning to use her body.
When she first arrived at rehab, she had to use a wheelchair. But she was soon able to walk with a walker.
Carly only stayed in rehab for 10 days, she said, adding: ‘I was determined to leave.’
She was able to return to her home in Carmanville on August 25 and has been there ever since.
While she still has to do rehab exercises to continue to teach the left side of her body how to function again, Carly can now walk on her own as long as someone else is around to supervise her.
‘I’m pretty much home bound,’ Carly said, explaining that she has to do daily exercises to strengthen her hip. She hopes to be strong enough to start working again at the beginning of 2018.
HOW CARLY’S STROKE AFFECTED HER OUTLOOK ON LIFE
Since her stroke – about six weeks ago – Carly said the outpouring of support shown to her and Nathanael has been ‘amazing’.
Her coworkers organized a fundraiser for her and on September 5, one dollar from each meal that was served at Mary Brown’s was donated to the Whites to help with Carly’s medical expenses.
And three children from a family in Ontario organized a lemonade stand to raise money to help Carly and Nathanael with their bills.
Rob Smith (left), Carly’s father, stayed with his daughter from the time she went into the hospital because of her stroke to the day she started walking again in rehab after her surgery. Rob and Carly are pictured here in 2013
‘I can’t believe it. We live in a tiny town. Even the people we don’t know have reached out,’ Carly said. ‘They brought us cat and dog food so it would be less of an expense.’
She added that the incident helped her realize how supportive her family was. ‘It’s amazing how something this tiny can help you realize where your family stands.’
Carly’s uncle paid for her sister to fly to Carly’s bedside after her operation. And her father also stayed with her while she was in the hospital and did not leave until she started walking again.
‘Our family has never been close, but they all came together when we needed them. The support is phenomenal,’ Carly said.
One of Carly’s biggest priorities now is getting her story out there to hopefully prevent other people from mistaking strokes for headaches.
She urges people to seek medical attention the moment they suspect their symptoms could be something other than a bad headache, especially if those symptoms last more than 12 hours.
‘Don’t just think [your stroke symptoms] are a headache,’ she said. Carly added: ‘If I would’ve waited another hour, I would’ve died. It’s a terrifying thought.’
‘I got a second chance,’ she said.