Caryn Pillsbury never anticipated that she would have a stroke. She was 29, in good health, and had not had any previous signs of problems. But on Christmas Eve 2008 she suffered an ischemic stroke in the basal ganglia region of her brain, caused by a blood clot.
Pillsbury, a lifelong Windham resident, is dedicated to sharing her story to build awareness of strokes, particularly in young women.
Pillsbury had no symptoms prior to the stroke. She just dropped to floor suddenly, unable to feel her arms, legs, or anything on her right side. Her son, who was seven at the time, was home with her but she was unable to communicate clearly with him. “I didn’t think stroke. That didn’t even cross my mind for a second,” she said. When her son asked if he should call someone for help, she told him no, thinking her symptoms would go away with time. After several hours, she was transported to the hospital via ambulance.
This is a vital piece of the story, she said, because if she’d known the early signs of stroke and sought treatment within three hours of the first symptoms, there is a possibility that a clot busting shot could have helped. But by the time she was treated, so much time had passed that the shot could have caused more damage than good.
Pillsbury spent seven days in the intensive care unit and another month at New England Rehabilitation Hospital, where she dealt with right side paralysis and aphasia, which is a loss of speech. She could clearly know the words she wanted to use, but they would not come out correctly when she spoke. For instance, once she thought she was asking for a coat hanger, but the words she was saying were “paper towel.”
Pillsbury has come a long way, but is still recovering. “I think I’ll always be recovering,” she said. Outwardly, people may not know something had happened to her, but she knows just what her challenges are. She still attends occupational and physical therapy regularly, “I take it one day at a time, doing what I can do and that’s all I can do,” she said. Pillsbury said the support of her family, the therapy she’s received, and the American Heart Association has played an integral role in her recovery.
The stroke has affected Pillsbury’s life in many ways, including ongoing difficulties with memory, speech and motor functioning. But rather than focusing on the negatives, she has chosen instead to have a positive attitude, becoming an advocate and spokesperson. In a recent speech, Pillsbury said, “In the blink of an eye, your life can change due to a disease or an affliction. Your goals, your dreams, and your priorities are forced to take a different turn. You are grateful for the little things, and worry less about big things. You leave behind the history of yesterday and determine how you will use today's energy.”
One of the most important messages Pillsbury is trying to spread is that stroke can happen to anyone, and everyone needs to know the signs to look out for. “The reason why I do this is that young people are really not aware that this could happen to them,” she said. “People need to know that it can happen to you, and these are the signs you need to look out for,” she said.
There’s a simple acronym that can help people identify a stroke. F.A.S.T. stands for Face drooping; Arm weakness; Speech difficulty; Time to call 911. “That’s super important. If there’s one thing that people can walk away with from reading this, if they remember F.A.S.T., then the job is done,” said Pillsbury.
Pillsbury’s efforts to build awareness have included You Tube videos, sharing her story with a news crew, making a commercial for the Heart Walk, and acting as a spokeswoman at the 2015 Go Red Luncheon.
She is participating in the Southern Maine Heartwalk, which will start at AAA of Northern New England and walk around the Back Cove path on Sunday, May 17th. The event begins at 8:30 a.m. with educational displays, heart health education, family friendly activities and a heart healthy breakfast. The walk itself begins at 9:30 a.m, and festivities continue after the walk with activities at the celebration site, including a heart healthy lunch. Anyone interested in participating can register at www.southernmaineheartwalk.org.