When Patricia Vitiello nearly died from a stroke, she vowed never to take her well-being for granted again. As told to ABIGAIL LIBERS
On the morning of my 47th birthday last year, I woke up early to prepare for a big meeting at work. As I sat at my kitchen table at 5:30 a.m. sipping coffee, I suddenly felt a familiar sensation—one I’d been dreading for a long time. It started as a tingle in my right hand and quickly turned to numbness. Because it had happened eight years earlier, I knew what this meant: I was having a stroke.
I tried to stand up but instead slumped to the floor. Miraculously, my cell phone was within reach, and I dialed 911 with my unaffected left hand. The operator calmed me down, then asked me to unlock the front door for the paramedics. Unable to walk, I crawled to the door, my heart pounding. I slung my good arm up but was only able to get to the bottom two locks, not the top one. “I can’t reach!”
I cried into the phone. “Don’t worry,” the voice on the line said steadily. “The paramedics are on their way.”
The 20 minutes it took for them to arrive and break down die door felt like hours. As I lay helpless on the floor, a million thoughts raced through my mind: “How did I let this happen again? And will I survive it a second time?”
I’d been lucky during my previous stroke—although I’d lost feeling in die right side of my body, it had returned within an hour. The doctors didn’t find any blood clots and eventually surmised that I might have hyperhomocysteinemia, a condition that causes the body to generate excess amounts of homocysteine, an amino acid that may damage the lining of the arteries. That in turn can lead to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 have been shown to break down homocysteine, so my doctors prescribed a daily supplement of all three.
After that close call, life slowly returned to normal, and I managed to put my fears of a recurrence out of my mind most of the time. But now, as I awaited rescue, my panic returned tenfold.
THE PAINFUL REALITY
By the time the paramedics arrived, I realized I could hardly speak, which was even more terrifying. The stroke had paralyzed the entire right side of my body, including my face. I was rushed to a hospital near my apartment in Queens, NY, and given a drug called a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) intravenously, to break down clots that could cut off blood flow to the brain. I learned later how fortunate I was to get help quickly, because tPA only works if it’s given within about three hours of experiencing symptoms. Before the FDA approved tPA drips about 15 years ago, stroke wasn’t even considered an emergency, so a lot of people suffered severe damage.
The tPA IV helped a little, but I still couldn’t lift my right arm or speak properly. At that point, several things happened really quickly. I was sent to the Trauma Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and wheeled into an operating room, where an angiogram (an X-ray that uses a special dye to show blood flow) revealed a blood clot in the main artery on the left side of my brain.
Within a few minutes, the team of doctors began emergency surgery, probing inside my skull to extract the clot. I was