Wingfield Student Graduates Despite Rare Stroke that Almost Took Her Life
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—It’s not something you would expect to do your senior year—readying for high school graduation at the same time you’re rehabbing from a stroke.
So 18-year-old Sylvia Aldridge of Jackson understands when people say: “You’re too young to have this happen.”
“I couldn’t believe it, either,” she said. “But illness doesn’t have an age and you never know what might happen.”
While it’s rare for stroke to strike a teen, some conditions do make young people more vulnerable—such as heart abnormalities or blood clotting disorders. In Sylvia’s case, the culprit was a pregnancy complication known as preeclampsia or toxemia. The condition is marked by soaring blood pressure and is among the leading causes of maternal and fetal death in the United States.
First-time pregnancies, teenage pregnancies and an African-American heritage have been linked to preeclampsia. But neither Sylvia nor her mother had any notion of her heightened risk. “She didn’t have any health problems at all, that’s why we were all surprised,” said her mom Helen Aldridge.
Because Sylvia had been having weekly prenatal checkups, her mom said she wasn’t especially alarmed when her daughter didn’t feel well and stayed home from school on Jan. 3. She never imagined that Sylvia would deliver her baby stillborn a mere two days later and wind up clinging to life herself. “It happened all of a sudden and everything started going downhill,” said her mom.
As her blood pressure skyrocketed, Sylvia’s kidneys and pancreas threatened to shut down and a MRI scan revealed stroke damage to both sides of her brain. “It really just freaked me out,” her mom said. “I didn’t know about toxemia and how serious it is for pregnant women. When I was having babies, I didn’t think about anything like that.”
Since the exact cause of preeclampsia has not been identified, there are no clear prevention strategies. Therefore, it’s important that pregnant women get regular checkups and be alert to signs of trouble, said Dr. Michael Winkelmann, a physical medicine physician at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, who oversaw Sylvia’s stroke recovery.
Dr. Winkelmann said many pregnant women know to be concerned about symptoms such as blood in their urine. But they mistake other signs of preeclampsia—such as vision changes or excessive vomiting—for a natural progression of pregnancy.
“If a symptom seems out of proportion, women need to ask if it’s normal,” he said. “The main thing is to monitor your blood pressure closely during pregnancy and be sensitive to any weight changes not explained by mild water retention.”
Swelling in the hands and face and sudden, unexplained weight gain are hallmark signs of preeclampsia. Yet Sylvia never had those problems. Indeed, when she arrived at the obstetrician’s office on Jan. 4, staff found she had lost 22 pounds.
“They admitted her right off and checked the baby and they didn’t hear a heartbeat,” said her mom. Sylvia delivered her baby stillborn that day, and by the next she was at death’s door in the intensive care unit. “Her blood pressure was sky high and she wasn’t responsive,” said her mom. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.”
Sylvia was initially left severely debilitated, but her family was happy to find her strong spirit was still intact. “Even in ICU, she was determined to get up and walk,” said her mom. “We kept saying: No baby.”
On Jan. 21, Sylvia transferred to Methodist Rehabilitation Center to begin her comeback. And given what she had to overcome just to get there, Sylvia says she wasn’t all that bothered about being the youngest patient by far on the stroke floor.
“It just felt good to be alive,” she said. But there was no time to sit back and savor her survival. Sylvia had to get better in a hurry if she planned to catch up with her senior classmates at Wingfield High School in Jackson. “She really wanted to graduate. That was her driving force,” said Methodist speech therapist Cassie Means.
Means works at Quest, an outpatient program at Methodist that helps brain injury survivors make the transition back to work, school or community life. So it was her role to work with staff at Wingfield to coordinate Sylvia’s return to the classroom.
The plan was for Sylvia to combine an abbreviated schedule at school with four-day-a-week therapy sessions at Quest. And with a lot of hard work on Sylvia’s part, the ambitious strategy proved successful. Sylvia got her wish to “walk with my class” on May 25.
“I’ve come a long way,” she says. “When I was in the hospital, I couldn’t rise up from the bed, and I couldn’t walk without a walker. And my speech was bad.” Now Sylvia walks without assistance, and talking is no longer a struggle, either. She does still experience some blurring of her vision, though, and some forgetfulness.
Her focus now is to get her strength back and “do the things she used to do.” She especially relished her recent prom night, but she confides that most everything seems dear these days. “Before, I really didn’t care about anything and now I do,” she said. “I rededicated my life to Christ and I read the Bible. Some people say I’m a miracle child and God must have plans for me. It’s just a shame that this had to happen to me to see that life is not a game.”
Symptoms of Preeclampsia:
- Excessive swelling of the face and hands
- Severe headaches
- Vomiting blood
- Blood in your urine
- Rapid hearbeat
- Excessive nausea
- Ringing or buzzing sound in ears
- Excessive vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Sudden blindness
- Pain in the abdomen
The physical medicine physicians, certified rehabilitation nurses, researchers, social workers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, dieticians, psychologists, biomedical engineers and physical, occupational and speech therapists who make of the state’s most comprehensive stroke team at Methodist Rehabilitation Center have treated more than 12,000 patients since the Jackson hospital’s stroke program began 30 years ago.
Methodist is one of only 16 hospitals in the nation designated as a Traumatic Brain Injury Model System by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. It is also home to Quest, an outpatient program that helps people with brain injuries successfully return to school, work or community life.