What it’s like to have a stroke at 30 and pregnant

Pregnancy is a magical time in any woman’s life, but mine turned out to be quite different from what I had imagined. I was seven months pregnant with my first child when the unexpected happened. What started as a quick trip to the store on the morning of December 14th, 2014, ended with being admitted to the ICU at Baylor University Medical Center.  

I had a stroke at only 30 years old.

My first symptoms were feeling hot, weak and faint, followed by losing all movement in my right leg, then my right arm, then my hand and fingers. Last, came the extreme headache. It felt as if someone was pulling as hard as they could on the back of my head. In the end, the right side of my body was completely paralyzed.  

An emergency CT scan revealed a massive bleed in back left corner of my brain. This is what caused the stroke. But where did the bleed come from? How long had it been there? I had several tests and procedures during my stay in the ICU but none of them revealed the answers we needed. My baby girl was also being monitored daily. Thankfully, throughout all of this, she remained unharmed and was growing strong.  

We were all perplexed by my situation. I think just about every neurologist at Baylor Scott & White came to see me. Despite diligent testing and scans, they were unsure of what had caused the stroke to happen. We decided that the best place for me to be was at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation

Related: How an education-based support group helps traumatic brain injury survivors thrive

Finding the will to fight for my daughter

On December 24th, my 31st birthday, the headaches finally began to subside and I was able to move over to the rehab facility — happy birthday to me!

We decided to deliver my daughter via Cesarean section at 38 weeks. That meant I had 42 days to beat what seemed unbeatable. I had no choice but to get up each day, now eight months pregnant, and endure hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy.

I had to fight. Not just for me, but for my daughter. 

A typical day started with speech therapy. Even though I had not lost control of my face, I still had trouble reading, writing and remembering details. This might be a good time to mention that I am a high school theatre teacher, so speech is everything in my field of work. Through various exercises, I was able to regain all of my abilities. Over time, my writing, typing, reading and memory just continued to improve. 

Can you imagine taking care of a newborn baby with only one properly working arm? This is why occupational therapy was so important. At first, I could not even lift my arm or wiggle my fingers but I slowly gained full range of motion in my arm and improved my fine motor skills. My occupational therapist even got creative and centered many of my exercises around caring for a newborn. I learned how to swaddle a baby and brushed up on my diaper changing skills. 

My setback was a blessing. I survived what was meant to destroy me. I came back more fabulous, wiser and stronger than ever.

My physical therapist had the biggest job of all. I had sworn to myself that I would be walking by the time my baby was born. We worked on weight bearing and strengthening so I could learn how to walk with assistance. I may not have been able to go fast and it may not have looked very pretty, but I was doing it. By the time my daughter was born, I was able to walk using a walker. Mission accomplished.

Parker James Nalepa was born on February 5th, 2015 — a perfect and healthy baby girl! After a short stay in the NICU for non-stroke related issues, James and I were finally able to bring Parker home. Our family was complete. But my journey was far from over…

My doctors set me up with an in-home rehab program and outpatient physical therapy. I worked with my therapist for nearly a year, slowing moving from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, to a crutch, to walking independently with only an Ankle Foot Orthosis (AFO) to smoothen my walking pattern.

Related: How stroke care is evolving to improve patient recovery

Today, I have no movement from the knee down in my right leg. I am unable to turn my ankle or wiggle my toes. But miraculously, this is the only lasting effect from the stroke — I’ll take it!

Living life to the fullest after my stroke

After taking a year off from teaching, I returned to the classroom. I continue to direct high school theatre and have had shows go on to perform at the State level. I have traveled and walked my way through New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle and Disney World.

Every December, my dearest friends and family gather to celebrate my “strokeiversary.” Instead of dwelling on this dark time in my life, I choose to celebrate. I want to be with my friends and family who pushed me to do better and be better. Those who took care of me in my time of need. They are part of the reason that I am a stroke survivor.

Related: Learning to appreciate life after my car accident

Looking back, I would not change any part of my story. Even though we do not have the full answer to what caused the stroke, it has become a part of who I am. My setback was a blessing. I survived what was meant to destroy me. I came back more fabulous, wiser and stronger than ever.    

Recently, I have started working with the Baylor Scott & White stroke advisory board. Through my work on the advisory board and by sharing my story, I hope to raise awareness and support for stroke survivors and their loved ones. This journey is not easy, but it’s one you never have to face alone.

Find out how you, too, can thrive as a stroke survivor.

This blog post was written by Emily Nalepa.

Leave a Reply

What it’s like to have a stroke at 30 and pregnant