October 29 is World Stroke Day; therefore, neurologists at UCLA want to alert the public to risk factors for strokes. Unfortunately, when signs of stroke occur in younger adults, they often do not realize that they are having a stroke and avoid prompt medical treatment. UCLA neurologist Dr. David Liebeskind and UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Nestor Gonazalez note that the increase in childhood obesity is resulting in the early onset of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, both of which put young people at greater risk for stroke. The two physicians were part of a team that cared for a young stroke victim, Jennifer Reilly. The timely treatment administered to her avoided severe disability and possibly death.
Jennifer was 28 years old when she began experiencing some strange symptoms. Half of her left hand went numb. She could move her fingers; however, she could not feel anything on the outer part of that hand. Because of her young age, she assumed it was nothing, but she was wrong. The numbness reappeared off and on for several days. Then one night she had an intense headache, which was an uncommon event for her. She mentioned her symptoms to a co-worker who urged her to see a doctor. Jennifer, who is now 35, said, “I didn’t know I was having a stroke at the time. I just assumed I was a healthy, normal 28-year-old.”
Jennifer saw several doctors and ultimately arrived at the UCLA neurology department, where she saw Dr. Liebeskind, professor of neurology, director of Outpatient Stroke and Neurovascular Programs and director of the Neurovascular Imaging Research Core. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, which is a rare, progressive cerebrovascular disorder caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain. One of the first symptoms of Moyamoya is recurrent transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), commonly referred to as “mini-strokes,” just what Reilly was experiencing.
Dr. Liebeskind said that Jennifer was totally unaware of the danger was in. He said, “The worst and a very likely possibility is that she would have had a significant stroke,” one that could have been extremely debilitating or even fatal. He referred Jennifer to Dr. Neil Martin, chair of neurosurgery at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and head of the neurovascular surgery section. What he told Jennifer was alarming. Jennifer explained, “He told me I needed to be admitted into the hospital immediately, and that I would be in surgery within 24 hours. It was such a shock. I can’t fathom what my parents must have been going through. We had a few tears, and they stayed very strong for me.”
Jennifer underwent two nine-hour brain surgeries performed by Dr. Nestor Gonzalez, an associate professor of neurosurgery and radiology. The procedures rerouted arteries that normally bring blood to the scalp to now supply her brain. Over time, the arteries formed new branches and restored blood supply to the brain. Dr. Gonzalez said, “The good thing is that she sought attention when she started having those symptoms and we were able to diagnose her condition very early. We were able to avert a stroke that could have devastated her life.” He added, “A stroke is not a disease limited to elder individuals. It is a condition that can affect younger individuals, even kids. The moment someone feels any of the symptoms of a stroke, they need to seek immediate emergency attention.”
Dr. Liebeskind explained that the most common signs of stroke include sudden onset of weakness, sudden onset of numbness, difficulty speaking, difficulty seeing and difficulty interacting with other individuals. Jennifer’s experience had a happy ending. Almost six years have passed since her mini-strokes and surgeries and she is currently embracing life. She is now married and will celebrate her third wedding anniversary next June. “Since my recovery I have an absolutely newfound perspective on life,” she said. “I really try to stop and appreciate that I was given a second chance.”