LORAIN, Ohio — 38-year-old Abby Miller of Lorain showed me the path she took to save her own life. It’s maybe a tenth of a mile, but the distance is minimal to the miles she’s traveled in recovery.
Her story began the evening of June 16, 2021, just after she returned home from a workout.
"I started seeing black spots in my left eye and I would close my right eye, close my left eye, and I thought this is really weird," Abby said.
Then it was the pain.
“My face hurt, not a headache, my actual face physically hurt,” she said.
When her arm started doing things on its own, panic set in.
"It just lifted up all on its own it started twisting in ways and I went to yell out, oh my gosh what's going on, and it was just sound, no words were coming out," Abby said.
Abby knew she needed help, but she was alone. Her three sons were at their Dad's for the weekend. She had no choice but to leave her house to find help on her own. She left without shoes, ID or a wallet.
She went to the next-door neighbor’s house first, but no one answered the door. She’s not even sure she knocked because she was holding her drifting arm.
Abby started walking down the neighborhood sidewalk until she noticed a garage door open, three doors down. She walked straight in and stood in front of the inside door to the house.
Linda Howell was fixing a snack for her mother. She turned and saw a barefoot woman, wearing nothing but workout clothes standing in her garage. Initially she thought she’d caught a thief.
“I just said, 'why are you in my garage?' and she’s just kind of looking at me and holding onto her arm,” Linda said.
Linda’s mind went to the worst. The woman was shaking so she figured if the stranger wasn’t a thief, maybe she was a crime victim.
She called 911.
When police arrived, they thought the brunette may have been Hispanic and couldn't speak English. Regardless, they knew she was in distress, an ambulance was on the way.
When the squad arrived, Abby knew what she had to do.
“She got up from that chair and walked right up into that ambulance, walked right up there and they took it from there,” Linda said.
The squad took her to Mercy Health Lorain first where doctors thought Abby was having a stroke. Abby didn’t believe that diagnosis.
"That's not what's wrong with me because when you think of stroke, you think the stereotypical, you're old, and I'm not old, there's no way, " Abby said.
They called in the Cleveland Clinic helicopter which flew her downtown to the Comprehensive Stroke Center. Doctors there were already prepped for surgery.
"We would use a device that’s able to snare or grab onto the blood clot and remove it, we're able to restore blood flow and reduce the injury that someone has, reduce the disability,” said Dr. Andrew Russman, Medical Director for Cleveland Clinic's Comprehensive Stroke Center.
After the blood clot was removed, Abby went to the Intensive Care Unit. She still couldn’t speak and her ID was a mystery, so the hospital had no choice but to list her as ‘Jane Doe.’
Her nurses kept trying. They asked her if she was on social media and Abby’s face lit up. Miraculously the woman who couldn’t speak was able to utter two words.
“I said Abby Miller, it was the only time I could say my entire name,” Abby said.
The nurses searched Facebook and found her.
“They showed their phone and said ‘is this you?’ It was me, I was so happy it was just that happiness like when the woman found me in her garage it was the same relief,” Abby said.
The nurses were then able to find Abby’s mother on social media thanks to tags in Abby’s pictures.
After four days in the hospital, she went home to live with her mother and begin the long road of recovery that included aggressive rehabilitation.
"I lost all forms of communication, I couldn't talk, I couldn't write, I couldn't read, so I had to be in speech therapy for seven months," Abby said.
Abby’s sons pitched in to help their mom. They supervised her recovery 'homework' and never let her cheat or take the easy way out.
Two weeks after leaving the hospital, she and her middle son went for a hike. He asked his mom to write about her day.
Her words were gibberish. Not only could she not find the right words to describe her day, her writing was barely legible.
Over the next several months, Abby worked to regain the abilities she’d lost. Her boss asked her to send him a daily email describing how she was doing. It was great practice and a great way to see her progression.
Her work colleagues called her daily to help her with her speech and word recognition. Her mother was her rock and made sure she found time to rest.
Abby accepted what happened, but she couldn’t understand how an active young woman who runs 5Ks and leads a healthy lifestyle could have a stroke.
Dr. Russman explained her unique circumstances.
"About one in four people under the age of 45 who have a stroke have what's called an arterial dissection, which is where a small tear develops in the wall of a blood vessel, blood traps in the wall and forces the artery closed, then a blood clot forms and eventually travels downstream and blocks a major artery," Dr. Russman said.
Abby learned that it was the arterial dissection that made her face hurt. The blood vessel healed on its own.
Today Abby is back at work and life, but occasionally she still searches for words.
Physically she’s fine. Unlike typical strokes, she had no paralysis, except she’s still working on mobility with her right hand.
She’s tired all the time, so now she’s doing a sleep study because they think she may not be getting her deep restorative sleep for brain healing.
And Linda, the neighbor down the street who called 911, is no longer a stranger. As soon as Abby was able, she went to Linda’s house to introduce herself properly and thank her for saving her life.
Abby and Dr. Russman hope her story educates others that while rare, strokes can and do happen to younger people.
"If you have weakness on one side of the body, trouble talking, trouble understanding, sudden loss of sensation on one side of the body, loss of vision in one eye or the other, or half the vision in each eye, you've got to call 911," Dr. Russman said.
Another way to recognize a stroke is to remember the phrase, BE FAST.
The person may lose Balance, one or both Eyes may see spots, get blurry or lose vision, the Face may droop, they might experience weakness in their Arms, Speech may be slurred or incoherent and T is most important because it means Time.
Time lost is brain lost, so don’t hesitate and call 911.
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