Strokes overlooked in teens, children

February 18, 2013 5:10:43 PM PST
Strokes don't just happen to senior citizens. More and more teenagers and even children are having them.

A lot of times, symptoms can be misdiagnosed.

Phoebe Dow was only 19, and at work where she waitressed when it happened.

"My right side gave out and I was, like, in shock," she said. "I couldn't speak. I couldn't move. I couldn't move my hand. I couldn't walk."

It took 30 minutes for customers and coworkers to call 911.

"They were trying to figure out, 'Are you OK? Are you intoxicated?'" Dow said. "And that's when somebody said, 'We need to call 911 because something's really wrong.'"

They didn't recognize that a teenager could have a stroke. But speed is critical because there's only a three-hour window to get clot-busting drugs to reverse stroke damage.

In Dow's case, her stroke was caused by a hole in her heart.

"Strokes can occur at any age," said Dr. Richard Smalling. "It's more common the older you get, but in patients who have holes in their heart, they typically have strokes at a younger age."

Smalling is a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Hospital. He used a device to close the hole in Dow's heart, but she still needed months of rehabilitation to recover from the brain damage, and she had to do it on her own because she didn't have insurance.

"I would just practice every day and it slowly came back, I would say about six months after I had the stroke," Dow said.

Childhood strokes are on the rise because high blood, obesity and diabetes are increasing. Even babies can have a stroke just before birth or during their first year of life, so it's critical people recognize stroke symptoms in children and teens.

"I was in total shock," Dow said. "I couldn't believe it. 'I'm not ever going to be able to walk. My life's over.' That's just how you think."

But young people have a good chance of recovery if they get fast treatment at a stroke center.

Smalling has been conducting a UT Health study on the best way to prevent second strokes in people who have holes in their hearts. They've been comparing the device that closed the hole in Dow's heart and medicine. Both can help, but they say if you are at risk, you need to get some kind of preventative treatment.

Stroke symptoms in children are much like those in adults. They include weakness on one side, slurred speech, sudden confusion, difficulty seeing and severe headache.

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