Today is my anniversary and another one is approaching. But not the ones people usually celebrate. It is not the anniversary of a walk down the aisle, a walk across a stage or some other grand rite of passage. It is the anniversary of one of the scariest days of my life. The day I suffered a stroke – at work — which led to doctors finding and fixing a “hole” in my heart.
I was “Ms. Kick Butt and Take Names,” a leader in the newsroom and a force to be reckoned with; I prided myself in saying so. People looked at me like a superwoman and my cape was fabulous. A placard on my desk actually read “Fabulous is a full-time job,” which is so fitting for the persona I had developed.
Oh, but even a superwoman’s cape can’t keep you soaring high when your body is ready to crash and burn. And that is exactly what happened.
Five days after my birthday, I was in my office, the first day after returning to work from having the flu. I was playing catch-up on all my backed-up emails when, all of a sudden, I forced a hard cough to dislodge phlegm from my chest and my vision went blurry.
Listening to My Inner Voice
It was 1 p.m. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day and I thought maybe my blurred vision was associated with my hunger. But my mind told me, “Girlfriend, we have a problem. Let’s go.”
I listened to that inner voice and asked one of my employees to drive me to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. Upon check-in, I told the admitting staff that I believed I was suffering a stroke. To be honest, I didn’t think I was, I was just trying to avoid a lengthy delay in the waiting room, but the minute I said the word “stroke,” my inner voice kicked in again and said, “Girlfriend, you are.”
The ER docs ruled out a stroke, saying that all of my vital signs were normal, which was a relief, but they still kept me for further observation. I underwent several rounds of testing, including an MRI, before a doctor returned to tell me, “Ms. Cooper, you’ve suffered a stroke.” Say what??!!!! I thought I had just been given a death sentence.
Over the next three days, I was visited by specialists and physical therapists who kept saying how strong I was. I had no risk factors for stroke. No high blood pressure, no diabetes. My heart appeared to be strong – with tests to prove it. I wasn’t exhibiting any signs of suffering a stroke. I was balanced, everything in my face was perfectly symmetric and they even took me walking up and down flights of hospital stairs, in which I hopped, skipped and jumped effortlessly to prove a point that surely their diagnosis must be wrong.
I was given referrals for follow-ups with specialists, but the answers didn’t come easy. I met with multiple specialists, went through rounds and rounds of testing with no definitive answer. That was especially hard for me, as a journalist, to digest. It was like I was an enigma.
A neurologist simply told me I was “morbidly obese” and these things just happen sometimes. She told me to start exercising more and take an aspirin a day.
Well honey, I told her she was WRONG! I looked her square in the eyes and said, “I am NOT morbidly obese. I am what you call a thick, fine black woman, and I want answers!”
She had none, and no more of my money either, to say the least. Never be afraid to change a doctor who is not in tune with your needs.
My gynecologist, a black woman, Dr. Chandra Higginbotham, became the prayer warrior doctor I needed to help me connect the dots. She sat with me, more importantly prayed with me, even putting oil on my forehead as she went over all the specialists’ notes, line by line. She did her own testing — even sending me to be tested for sleep apnea — and gave me the peace I needed to keep moving forward and the encouragement I needed for us to keep fighting for answers.
My cardiologist, Sanjay Maniar, MD, outfitted me with a heart monitor for 30 days. At the end, the readings showed my ticker was beating just fine, but I broke down crying and told him that I knew something was wrong with my heart. He did something miraculous at that time: he let me yap on and on, and he patiently listened.
I had been telling people since I was in the fifth grade that my heart was “beating funny” sometimes. When I got a full time job with great insurance benefits, I sought my own cardiologist. In 2012, a cardiologist diagnosed me with mitral valve prolapse, where the valve between the heart’s upper and lower chambers doesn’t close properly. I was told to watch my caffeine intake and make other small adjustments. When I changed cardiologists in 2014 due to my insurance provider changing, my new cardiologist told me I showed no signs of mitral valve prolapse and was perfectly normal. Say what — one again!
But here we were years later, a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy woman in what was supposed to be the “prime” of her life and I had a stroke, which miraculously disappeared off an MRI just a few months later, and a heart that was “beautiful” according to tests.
A Prisoner Inside My Own Head
So what was wrong with me? Emotionally, everything. In the three months following my stroke, I became a prisoner inside my own head. With no one being able to tell me why I suffered the stroke, I was terrified that it would strike again.
I stopped driving on the freeway at night, afraid that I would have a stroke and would cause an accident with my kids in the car. I stopped attending networking events and galas, afraid to be away from home. I stopped wearing my signature stiletto heels, because I felt wobbly all the time. I was a nervous wreck. I was in the final semester of college obtaining my master’s degree, but considered dropping out because I was terrified to drive to my night school classes. I finally confessed what I was going through to my professors, who allowed me to complete my courses online.
I kept my diagnosis a secret from my employer, afraid they would deem me a weak link and get rid of me – so I silently pushed myself through work, closing my office door several times a day to just cry my heart out. Crying became the norm for me. I’d go home at the end of the days emotionally drained, my children would help me go up the stairs and tuck me in for the night. We were living on takeout because I was too tired and “too afraid” to cook. It was hard for them to see me, who was always the rock for everyone else, crumbling before their eyes.
I had to find out what was wrong.
Dr. Maniar said, “I have a hunch about something, but I’ll need to put you to sleep and take a look at your heart from the inside.”
I said, “Let’s do it!” I was tired of the mystery.
Dr. Maniar performed a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) and discovered a hole in my heart, a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO), something I had been born with. He connected me with Richard Smalling, MD, an interventional cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), who made the connection between an “unexplained stroke” and PFOs.
Having a PFO increases stroke risk. Finally, I had an answer! Solution? A PFO closure, which is a heart surgical procedure.
As it was explained to me, what could have happened that fateful day was when I coughed hard, the blood went through the hole in my heart in the wrong direction, clotted and shot up to my right occipital lobe, which controls the left field of vision, blurring it. That chain of events was more of a blessing than a curse. It led me to Dr. Maniar, who led me to Dr. Smalling.
Dr. Smalling used a catheter-based procedure to go up through a vein in my groin area to patch up the hole in my heart in less than an hour. I was awake the entire time and I was released from the hospital the next day.
A Reason for Celebration
One month after my surgery, I strutted across that stage in my highest heels and got my Master’s in Digital Media Communication. My children were by my side every step of the way and we took our family “milestone” graduation photos together. My daughter was graduating from elementary school, my son was graduating from middle school and I — well — I was celebrating a new phase of life and God’s greatness.
So you know what? This day will forever be the anniversary of me being happy, healthy and armed with the answers that I need.
So what is the lesson I’m trying to convey. Keep yapping, find a doctor who will listen and listen to that inner voice leading you in the right direction. As a black woman, you need to “know who you are” and not let others tell you what you know is the opposite.
I think of what could have happened to me if I allowed that other doctor to make me believe that I was fat and an aspirin a day was my only saving grace. She did not have the answers, but I did not stop until I found someone who would listen to me and help me find what I needed, which potentially saved my life.
I knew something was going on with my heart since I was a child, and as a grown woman, I know my body. I just had to keep fighting until the right doctor heard me.
And guess what? I’m back to “kicking butt and taking names,” but there’s so much more that I have grown to appreciate. Cherish every moment, tell people you love them as often as they need to hear it, don’t overwork yourself and – most of all – don’t sweat the small stuff. There’s a life out there with your name on it…LIVE IT!
Being a writer, I documented my struggles, not knowing what I would do with the footage. I turned it into a film project for my graduation. I am sharing my story in hopes that it can help others.