Jenna Gibson and family.Share on Pinterest
Because the symptoms she experienced weren’t common, Jenna Gibson and her family didn’t realize she was having a stroke when it happened. Image Provided by Jenna Gibson
  • A thriving mother of two, Jenna Gibson had a stroke at 39 years old.
  • After misunderstanding the symptoms of stroke, she underwent emergency brain surgery to save her life.
  • Gibson shares her story to help raise awareness of stroke risks and symptoms in women.

In May 2019, 39-year-old Jenna Gibson was on an after-dinner walk with her mom, discussing her goal of running a marathon, when she suddenly fell to the ground.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was trying to convey to my mom that I couldn’t stand up. Slowly, the symptoms started coming. I couldn’t express what I was trying to say. I was slurring a little bit,” Gibson told Healthline.

After some confusion, her mom was able to help her up and guide her to her home, which was a few blocks away.

“We walked into the house, and I kept saying ‘Not okay, not okay,’ and I told my family to get a piece of paper, and I started writing not okay,” Gibson recalled.

Because she had experienced several ocular migraine episodes over the past 15 years, she and her family assumed she was experiencing one that night. She took Motrin and asked her husband to help her into bed.

“At that point, I was scared because I knew it wasn’t a typical migraine, but I didn’t have typical stroke symptoms like facial drooping or weakness that was obvious,” said Gibson.

She woke up at 3 am, unable to move or speak correctly. Her husband called his mother-in-law, who took Gibson to the emergency room, where a CT scan did not show signs of stroke. However, doctors kept her in the hospital until the neurologist could see her the next morning. After performing a CT scan with contrast, doctors determined Gibson had a stroke.

“The room got hectic, and they said I needed to be airlifted to their sister hospital for brain surgery to try to remove the clot, and they said I was running out of time,” said Gibson. “At that time, I knew I was going to die.”

The brain surgery Gibson received was 50% successful because the clot had spread by the time of surgery.

“When I woke up from ICU, I couldn’t speak and couldn’t move any of my limbs. My internal monologue worked perfectly. I remember the thoughts I had and trying to say words I wanted to say; it was like being stuck in my head,” she said.

While lying in bed, she thought she would never be able to walk or talk again. “But then my husband gave me the pep talk that I needed to do whatever it takes to come back to our two girls so I could tell them I love them and say their names.”

The inspiration pushed her through a 12-day stay in the hospital, where she slowly improved due to speech, occupational, and physical therapies. Her recovery continued for four more months with outpatient therapies.

By mid-October, Gibson was able to return to work part-time and by February 2022, she was back to full-time.

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“Unfortunately, I waited to go to the ER for too long, and there are other things they could have done if they knew I was having a stroke sooner,” Gibson said. Image Provided by Jenna Gibson

Gibson’s stroke was classified as a cryptogenic stroke, which means the cause of the stroke is unknown. However, doctors ruled out high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and blocked arteries as the cause.

“After having genetic testing done, they believe it was my birth control coupled with genetic MTHFR mutation and Factor VIII,” said Gibson. These factors put her at a higher risk for stroke.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death for women. Gender-related stroke risks include pregnancy, certain birth control pills, and hormone replacement therapy, said Dr. Yeewen A. Tsui, chief of neurology at Access TeleCare.

“Women with high blood pressure are at higher risk, with that rate on the rise,” she told Healthline.

However, Tsui said a dangerous misconception is thinking that strokes are all the same.

“Stroke is a catch-all term that refers to any sudden vascular event of the central nervous system, including ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes, each of which comes with a long list of potential causes,” said Tsui.

While the rate of stroke is higher in men, ultimately, more women are likely to die of stroke because they live longer, said Jessica Sumner, DNP, APRN, director of clinical effectiveness and stroke at Norton Healthcare.

After the age of 25, women have a 1 in 4 risk of stroke.

Additionally, like Gibson, women have a higher risk of being misdiagnosed initially.

“Because of the misdiagnosis, there are delays in recognition, delays in treatment and rehabilitation, as well as efforts aimed at preventing another stroke,” said Sumner.

Women also seem to have poorer outcomes after stroke.

“It seems to be related to health status at the time of the stroke, age, and stroke severity. However, further research is needed to look at the disparities affecting women who have a stroke and determine what interventions are needed to improve outcomes,” said Sumner.

Stroke in women typically presents with traditional symptoms, said Sumner. She stressed remembering the BE FAST acronym:

  • Balance issues or difficulty walking
  • Eyes, difficulty seeing
  • Facial droop
  • Arm weakness on one side
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

“However, stroke in women can also present with vague symptoms such as weakness, confusion, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting,” said Sumner.

Because stroke is time-sensitive, Tsui said early diagnosis and treatment are critical for improved outcomes.

“厂辞尘别 treatments for stroke work only if given within the first 3 hours of the onset of symptoms. Delayed treatment inflates the risk of permanent brain damage or death,” she said.

Acting fast is Gibson’s reason for sharing her story.

“Unfortunately, I waited to go to the ER for too long, and there are other things they could have done if they knew I was having a stroke sooner,” she said.

During recovery, she did learn to advocate for herself and hopes to inspire others to do the same.

“Take part in your health. If you think something doesn’t seem right, get a second opinion or go deeper and further and educate yourself to be your own advocate,” she said. “You can’t buy better or different health, so you really have to take care of yourself.”

Because there are different types of strokes, the potential to prevent any of them is dependent on their cause, said Tsui.

Still, 80% of strokes are preventable through medication and lifestyle changes, including:

  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure
  • Controlling cholesterol and diabetes
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding tobacco and heavy alcohol use

It’s also important to know your individual risk factors and to take steps to address them.

“There are things like age, gender, race or ethnicity, family history and genetics that we can’t change,” said Sumner. “However, we can address high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, high lipids, atrial fibrillation, smoking, and carotid artery disease.”

If you have had a stroke, she said to take the prescribed medications and modify your lifestyle so you can help prevent having another stroke.

Gibson takes this to heart. In addition to managing her own health to reduce her risk of having another stroke, she took the initiative to stop the cycle of risk with her daughters.

“I had both my girls tested for the gene mutations I have, and my oldest daughter has the same mutation. Now we know that birth control is not an option for her either,” she said.