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Meaghan O’Brien, Massachusetts

I am Meaghan O’Brien, a 26 years old, a young working professional with a full-time job, I am a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin and friend, I am a world traveler, I am a thrill-seeker and I AM A STROKE SURVIVOR.  

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I grew up in a small town on the South Shore with my parents and my two younger brothers. I was always active and driven growing up, playing sports and staying at the top of my class. In 2012, I graduated from Bentley University and got my first “big girl” job that fall, full of hope and dreams for what the future would hold for me. I had the best friends and the best family, I felt on top of the world and then the unthinkable happened. 

Just over three years ago on a Monday night in January, I walked into the gym feeling completely normal. I sat down on a stationary bike in a small room and tried to mentally prepare myself for the hour-long cycling class. I had no idea what I would face and ultimately survive in the minutes to come. The lights in the room were dimmed down, the music was turned on very loud, and the class began right on schedule. A few minutes into the workout, I sat back to take a sip of water. I put the water bottle back down and went to return to position, but there was a problem – I couldn’t move my left arm. Almost immediately I started to feel pins and needles throughout my whole body and thought that I was about to faint. You know the bad dream you have when you’re in trouble and try to yell for help but your voice won’t work? That is exactly how I felt as I tried to get someone’s attention in the loud, dark room. It was obvious that something wasn’t right and I knew I had to get out of that room and get help immediately. I managed to collect my belongings and start walking towards the front desk to get help from one of the employees, a close friend of mine. I started to get very dizzy and the hallway to the front desk seemed to be growing longer and longer; I never made it to the front desk and I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to faint, I was having a stroke. 

I could feel the left side of my body slipping out of my control in what was a matter of seconds but felt like a slow-motion nightmare. First, as I had already noticed in the workout room, no matter how hard I tried I could not move my left hand or arm. Then, as I walked down the hallway, my left leg became very weak and unable to hold my body up. Finally, as I sat up against the wall in the hallway it felt as if the entire left side of my face was melting down from my eyebrow to my lips. All I could think about was a poster I had seen probably in doctor’s offices or at work for the warning signs of a stroke. That poster reads “FAST”: F for face drooping, A for arm weakness, S for speech difficulty, T for time to call 911.  Even though I knew the signs of stroke, I never knew they could apply to someone my age. I am here to tell you they can. With a sense of disbelief I kept repeating the FAST acronym in my head, and the more I repeated it the more I realized that even the impossible was possible. How could I be having a stroke when just yesterday I was ice skating, bowling, and enjoying a day with friends? 

When the ambulance arrived I repeatedly said to the EMTs “I’m only 22 this isn’t supposed to happen to me.” They asked me what symptoms I was experiencing and I confidently said, “I’m having a stroke.” At first the EMTs and later the doctor at the emergency room thought it might be a migraine, because I didn’t fit the profile of someone at risk of stroke as a 22 year old, healthy and active female. I knew my body and I knew that I wasn’t having a migraine. I am so thankful I was able to advocate for myself in order to convince the team I needed the proper medicine to stop the effects of the stroke and save my life. Thankfully the medicine returned the blood flow and oxygen to my brain to keep me alive but too much damage was already done and the left side of my body was paralyzed. 

I was transported by med-flight to Boston where I spent a week in the intensive care unit and my family was told I would likely be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life and never do anything normally again. I then spent a month in a rehabilitation hospital where I learned how to walk again, adapted to doing everyday tasks with one hand, and created my new normal life. My hospital stay validated my initial thought of “I’m only 22 this isn’t supposed to happen to me”, as I was the youngest stroke patient on the floor by at least 30 years. I didn’t know it then, but I was far from being alone and I have learned that there are countless other stories similar to mine from people of all ages and backgrounds. After my inpatient care, I worked tirelessly at an outpatient clinic for 9 months where I am still a patient intermittently as standard insurance coverage allows. My recovery will be a lifelong process and I am dedicated to giving it as much effort as I can because I am stronger than stroke. 

From day one in the ICU, I was determined to meet other survivors and help spread awareness for stroke, especially in young adults. Opportunities like sharing my story with you today are what make me proud to be a stroke survivor, with the hopes that I can share the warning signs, let you know that this can happen to anyone and act as a beacon of hope that stroke can be overcome. We may not be able to control the things the things that happen to us, but we can certainly control how we let them affect our lives moving forward. Surviving the stroke was only the first part of my story, it is what I have done and will continue to do next that will make the true difference. 

It would be easy to tell you how difficult it is to be an independent 25 year old stroke survivor and focus on the things that I lost on that January night three years ago, but I have gained far more powerful things in all the inspiring survivor stories I have heard, all the knowledge I have gained, the platform to make a difference, and the appreciation for every moment of my life. When I was told that I would never do anything normal again I was determined to not let that become a reality, and I have never let my stroke stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. In the past two years I have sat on the edges of cliffs in Ireland, I have skydived, I have gone on the craziest roller-coasters I can find, I have cheered on my brothers at their college football and baseball games, I have skied and hiked mountains, I been front row at my favorite concerts and I have become a passionate volunteer and speaker for the American Heart Association. I have returned to work full-time in order to support myself, I have learned how to drive again, I have moved out on my own and I have completely regained my independence. I am so grateful to have achieved all these things and for all the things to come in my future. 

There are truly no words to express my gratitude for all of your efforts and support of the American Heart Association. Without American Heart, I might not have known the warning signs and symptoms of a stroke that saved my life and I might not be able to band together with other survivors and supporters to make our cause known. Your support of the American Heart’s mission to build healthier lifestyles and raise awareness of heart disease and stroke will not only enhance the lives of survivors like me and save others’ lives, but it allows us to come together and prove that together we are stronger than stroke. 

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