When the pain struck, Gina Wilson thought she was having a migraine headache.
Family members knew it was much worse. She had a strange gaze in her eyes and she wasn't herself.
She needed to go to the emergency room, not the medicine cabinet, they said.
It was a good call. The Palm Harbor mother of five was having a hemorrhagic stroke and her brain was filling with blood. The doctors told her she needed emergency surgery.
"I told them, 'You think you're going to cut on my brain? I don't think so,' " Wilson, 47, recalled.
That was the last thing she remembered.
Following the operation to repair the leaking blood vessel, she slipped into a monthlong coma. She awoke on Valentine's Day, only to realize she could no longer speak or walk.
That was five years ago. She's made an amazing comeback, and at 10 a.m. Saturday, she will share her stroke testimonial as she prepares crab etouffee, a recipe from the third edition of the Healthy Soul Food Recipes cookbook magazine.
The workshop, part of the American Stoke Association's Power to End Stroke campaign, will be at the Tarpon Springs Public Library, 138 E Lemon St.
All participants will receive a free copy of the cookbook, which features 47 heart-healthy recipes and tips to prevent stroke.
Tami Gendreau, a registered nurse and member of Morton Plant Mease Stroke Services, said it's imperative that people become aware of the risk factors and warning signs of stroke.
"It's the No. 1 cause of long-term disability in adults and the third leading cause of death in this county," she said.
Even though Wilson was only 42 at the time, she was already at risk for stroke.
According to the American Stroke Association, blacks have almost twice the risk of first-ever strokes compared to whites, yet they are among those least aware of the risk factors for the disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, high cholesterol, inactivity, obesity and tobacco use.
When she suffered that terrible headache on Jan. 8, 2003, Wilson was dealing with the challenges of motherhood, an imminent divorce and a high-stress career as a counselor for angry teens.
But all of that was easy compared with the thought of spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair, speechless and paralyzed, she said.
"I felt helpless, hopeless and useless," she said. "I was searching for Dr. Kevorkian."
She never found the suicide doctor but she found love again with her husband, Allen, who returned home to be by her side and take care of her — except for that one time he left her sitting near a frozen food section.
Shivering and unable to move away, Wilson said a prayer:
"Lord, I can't have people just pushing me around and leaving me wherever they want to. I need your help to get better," she whispered.
Within a month, she began walking with the help of a cane. Her speech slowly returned.
To help with her depression, she began to train for a marathon.
"God has a plan for you and maybe it's to teach others about stroke," her therapist told her.
In June 2005, she completed a half-marathon — 13.5 miles — in Hawaii .
It took her nearly six hours, but she did it.
"It propelled me into what I am today," she said.
Her difficulties aren't fully behind her. She's had five strokes since that first one, the last in May.
"With my determination and the support I get from my family, I just keep moving forward," Wilson said.
She also turns to her angels — the angel dolls and figurines she started collecting in 2003 after friends brought some to the hospital for her.
"They're my guardian angels," she said. "Whenever I'm feeling down, I just talk to my angels."
Wilson facilitates a stroke support group at Mease Countryside Hospital, chauffeurs her 13-year-old son to sports activities and has perfect diction.
She still has some paralysis in her left foot and arm, and says her memory has seen better days.
"I'm a senior citizen trapped in a 47-year-old body," she said.
Nevertheless, she's joyful about the recovery she's made.
"I tell people, 'Just because you had a stroke doesn't mean your life is over,' " she said.
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at email@example.com.