Donna Garlough's Why

Photography courtesy of Joyelle West

Donna Garlough lifted her 18-month-old son, Jonah, from his crib and kissed his belly. He babbled his morning greeting. But Donna couldn’t babble back.

Things were off that morning in February 2015. Donna had blamed the splitting headache she woke up with on the white wine she’d sipped the night before. As she tried to cut fruit for Jonah and his 4-year-old sister, Sarah, the strawberries kept slipping out of her hand. Maybe she’d slept funny, she thought.

Then, she couldn’t talk. “It was an extremely alien experience,” said Donna, a style director, home-design blogger and author who’s now 37. “When I opened my mouth, nothing came out. It was like I was pushing the TV remote and nothing was coming on.”

Donna thought of her neighbor, Jessica Diaz, who’d recently had a stroke. A voice inside her head telling her to listen to her body got louder, but it didn’t put a stop to her busy morning routine.

In the shower, she lost feeling in her left hand. It felt like it was made of thick, dense rubber, she recalled.

“That’s what forced me to say, ‘This is real, this is happening.’”

Still, Donna gave herself another test. Wrapped in her bath towel, she smiled in the mirror. But only the right side of her mouth moved.

She thought, “But I’m only 35.”

Her thoughts went back to Jessica. Donna knew about stroke in theory — lists and pictures of warning signs — but Jessica made it real. If Jessica, a “wildly fit” Pilates teacher and barre instructor, could have a stroke, Donna realized she could, too.

Her next thought: the kids. She didn’t want them to see what was going on.

“This is how convoluted the motherly mind can be,” said Donna, who lives in Boston with her husband, Dave. “You’re having a stroke, but you still want to get the kids to school.”

For his part, Dave sprang into action, yet he didn’t believe it was a medical emergency.

“In my mind, healthy 35-year-old women just don’t have strokes, so it just must be something else,” he said. “Maybe she was getting some kind of a weird cold or flu, or she slept on a nerve wrong — anything other than a stroke.”

A friend drove her to the hospital, and tests confirmed she’d had a stroke. The American Heart Association recommends people call 911 immediately if they experience stroke symptoms such as face drooping, arm weakness or speech difficulty.

“I bawled, I panicked and I spent three days in the neurology unit at Massachusetts General Hospital while they did test after test to uncover the cause,” Donna said. “At first, they didn’t find one — no high blood pressure, no clotting disorder.”

Photography courtesy of Joyelle West

Donna and Dave Garlough with daughter Sarah and son Jonah

But Donna, like about a quarter of healthy adults, has a patent foramen ovale, a small hole in the heart. It doesn’t usually cause problems, but rarely a blood clot forms and travels to the heart, slips through the hole and makes its way to the brain, blocking blood flow and causing a stroke.

Donna recovered over the next few months. Taking a daily aspirin to reduce her risk of another stroke became part of her routine.

“I keep the aspirin everywhere. I keep one on my desk, in the medicine cabinet, in my purse,” she said. “I try to take it at the same time every day, but if I forget, I always have it.”

The mom and business woman now makes her health a priority, and she urges people experiencing symptoms to not delay getting help like she did.

“If you have the tiniest suspicion, go to the hospital,” Donna said. “If you don’t go, you can lose mobility, you can lose brain function, you can lose the ability to think clearly, to speak. There’s a lot at stake. There’s so much you could lose if you don’t act quickly.”

Dave agrees. “Even though the doctors told us we did a great job responding quickly, I feel like we lost a lot of time just by not believing a stroke was possible. Improbable things happen every day, and a quick trip to the hospital is well worth it — just in case.”

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