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BLINDSIDED

"I thought, how could I be having a stroke?" Mary Snowden-Gordon recalls. "I played my match and almost won."

Mary Snowden-Gordon was one of the healthiest 40-something women you could imagine. She was not overweight, didn't smoke, exercised every day, ate right most of the time, didn't have high blood pressure or diabetes. On top of all that, as an emergency room nurse she saw the consequences of poor health habits every day and knew all about prevention.

Then came the ministroke. She recovered, resumed her healthy habits - and suffered a full stroke three years later.

Today she is back at work, both at the ER and on her own health. She's also living proof that strokes aren't just an inevitability of old age, poor habits and bad luck. They can happen to the young and healthy.

But as her story shows, they also can be overcome.

- - -

One morning in November 2003, after her shift at Tampa General Hospital, Snowden-Gordon went to the tennis courts, as she did at least three times a week.

During the game she was a little light-headed. Things looked a bit blurry. Her left cheek, arm and fingers tingled, but she kept hitting the ball. She played well, but her game was a little off.

"I thought I was tired after working a 12-hour shift. Then it went away and I forgot about it," said Snowden-Gordon, now 55. "I went to bed that night and when I woke up in the morning I had slurred speech and my face was crooked.''

She managed to tell her husband to call 911. She was told she had a TIA, or ministroke.

"I thought, how could I be having a stroke?" she recalled. "I played my match and almost won."

Snowden-Gordon knew she had a genetic condition that makes her cholesterol abnormally high and knew it increased her risk of stroke. She took medication, ran and played tennis, and watched her diet. Still, her cholesterol was routinely above 300; a healthy level is below 200.

Some stroke risk factors can be controlled through healthy habits, and Snowden-Gordon was doing everything right in that department.

But she had no control over her race. African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to have strokes, and four times as likely as whites to have them before age 65. Same for her family history - her mother and both grandmothers had strokes and a maternal aunt died of a stroke at age 60 - and, after 2003, her own stroke history.

In 2006, she added to that history. This time, she knew what the symptoms meant. She reported to work at Tampa General and told her supervisor she needed a doctor.

During the examination, her whole left side went numb. This was a full stroke, a serious blockage interrupting blood flow to her brain. She spent a week in the hospital on powerful blood thinners to dissolve the clot.

In days, the weakness began to subside. But it took a few weeks to regain her full strength, the grip on her tennis racket, and for slight memory problems and difficulty with handwriting to disappear.

On top of her tennis games, she added daily 5-mile walk-runs she does as soon as she's home from work. And she took a harder look at her diet.

"I am a french fry eater. I was sneaking those fries," she said. "And I love my fried chicken. I was eating that, too. I had to give that stuff up and I just bake or broil everything now. I have fries maybe once a month."

Her doctor prescribed a second cholesterol-lowering medication and a daily omega-3 fish oil supplement. Add it all up and her cholesterol is down to a healthy 198.

It has been five years since her last stroke, and all seems well. Yet she is taking no chances, even giving her tennis friends little cards bearing the symptoms of a stroke.

"I told them, don't wait, if I look crazy on the court, call 911."

Her advice for others: "No matter how minor the symptoms seem, don't wait. Get them checked out. Call 911."

* * *

Stroke facts

. A stroke occurs about every 40 seconds in the United States.

. The number of stroke deaths has declined in recent years due to better treatment, but it's still the third leading cause of death.

.Women are more likely to die of stroke than men.

. One-quarter of strokes occur in people under age 65.

Symptoms

.Common stroke symptoms seen in both men and women strike suddenly and include:numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body; confusion and trouble speaking or understanding; trouble seeing or walking; dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; severe headache

.Women also may report symptoms such as sudden:face and limb pain, hiccups or nausea; general weakness; chest pain, shortness of breath and palpitations

Risk factors

.For men and women: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, family history, personal stroke history

.Unique to women: taking birth control pills or HRT; pregnancy; migraine headaches

Sources: American Stroke Association, National Stroke Association, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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