By Staff Sgt. Erica Picariello
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Imagine coming home from work and being struck by an agonizing headache. Disoriented and in pain, you pull through the initial shock, start walking into the house only to realize your left leg is dragging and you’re drooling out of the left side of your mouth.
This was one Air Force Space Command officer’s reality after suffering an acute stroke in February 2009.
May marked the beginning of National Stroke Awareness month and Maj. Toni Whaley, Air Force Space Command Public Affairs, knows first-hand the critical role awareness plays.
“I suffer from allergies, so I dismissed it as a sinus headache,” Major Whaley said. “My husband came out and was talking to me and told me that I didn’t look good and I was drooling. He also said I was slurring my words, which I kind of felt that I was overaccentuating to get the words out, but I ignored him and kept doing what I was doing.”
According to the National Stroke Association website, a stroke is a “brain attack” cutting off blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Signs of a stroke include 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 in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and a sudden severe headache with no known cause.
Major Whaley was already displaying a few of these symptoms. Though she vehemently tried to reason them away, the rest would soon present a clear warning.
“As I began walking toward the front of the garage, I lost my balance and became dizzy,” she said. “I shook it off as being dehydrated because I hadn’t had much to drink and nothing to eat at the time. I used my hand to prop myself up against the wall for a second, regained my balance and kept moving to the front of the car to return some tools into the toolbox. As I was placing the tools in the box, I slid down a large box that we have stored in the garage. I decided to just sit there, not realizing at the time that my entire left side of my body was paralyzed.”
Disoriented, Major Whaley continued to lie on the garage floor, feeding tools into a tool box with her right hand, until her husband came to check on her.
“My husband came out of the house and saw me on the ground and halfway under my car,” she said. “He asked what I was doing and I told him I was putting tools away. He then asked if I could move and I said I think so, but couldn’t.”
The National Center For Disease Control states that, “Strokes act fast, so should you,” crediting 135, 952 American deaths to this fast-acting killer. Strokes are also the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States. However, new treatments are available that can reduce the damage caused by a stroke for some victims, but these treatments need to be given shortly after the symptoms start.
Major Whaley’s husband’s quick action may have saved her life.
“My husband then asked for my car keys, moved the car back and helped me up. He asked me if I could walk, I said yes and with his assistance I made my way to the door,” Major Whaley said. “Now that I think back, I was dragging my left leg, but walking with the right. He helped me up the stairs and sat me down in the chair in our living room and soon took me to the emergency room.”
The National Stroke Awareness website states that strokes can — and do — occur at any age. Fifty five thousand more women than men will have a stroke each year and nearly 25 percent of strokes occur in people younger than age 65. At 44, Major Whaley fit the statistical mold.
“Stroke symptoms for men and women are different,” Major Whaley said. “However, we as individuals should know our bodies and listen to them.”
Three years later, Major Whaley has fully recovered and considers herself fortunate. She dodged any long-term physical effects from that acute stroke and now knows the warning signs.
“After my husband took me to the emergency room, I stayed in the hospital for about four days and was on convalescent leave for about a week and a half. I was out of the office for only about two weeks,” Major Whaley said. “I’m very blessed and fortunate that I have not had any lasting effects. I was told that my memory may not be as sharp as it once was, so I do crossword puzzles and play Jeopardy to keep my mind sharp.”
Though strokes can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of race, sex or age, Major Whaley now pays more attention to the signs her body is sending.
“I rationalized every symptom I had: headache, slurred speech, vertigo, paralysis,” said Major Whaley. “Now that I think back on them, it should have been very obvious. Anyone who is experiencing symptoms should call 911 immediately.”
For more information on National Stroke Awareness Month, go to: www.stroke.org.