Christy Kirk, 27, had a stroke in 2003, and doctors initially mistook it for a panic attack.
Kirk, a dentist and marathon runner from Boston, was preparing for her first Boston Marathon at the time. She was in good shape, going for daily runs after spending 5 to 8 hours in dental school.
Kirk began feeling “a little off” one day after returning home from a training run, and she suspected she had run too hard. The entire right side of her body went numb a few minutes later while she was sitting on her couch.
Kirk was having a stroke, which occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen, as a result of a blood clot that had passed through a small hole in her heart called an atrial septal defect.
Her eyes were locked to one side, and she couldn’t speak without slurring her words, she claimed.
“I tried to use my phone to call my husband, but I realized, when I had to leave him a voicemail, I couldn’t even form words,” she said. “That’s when I massively panicked.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strokes are the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, and timely treatment is critical for avoiding serious side effects. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in women, and one in every five women aged 55 to 75 will have one.
Strokes, however, are frequently misdiagnosed in young women like Kirk. According to Johns Hopkins, people under 45 and women are disproportionately more likely to be misdiagnosed in the week preceding a debilitating stroke.
Kirk went to her neighbor and asked them to take her to the hospital
Kirk said in the emergency room that she could still not speak without stuttering, but her vitals were normal and she could move her eyes again. Kirk was diagnosed with a panic attack by the ER doctor, who stated that she “seemed fine.” He gave her a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication and sent her home.
“I knew that I wasn’t a person who panicked, I’d never panicked in my life and everything was going very well for me at that time,” she said. “I called a really close friend. She came over and stayed with me because I was afraid, I thought I might die at home alone.”
Kirk’s misdiagnosis was aided in part by the fact that the blood clot in her brain caused by the stroke was so small that it did not show up on an initial CT scan. Kirk followed up with another doctor a few days later to get an MRI exam, which provided a better picture of her brain to identify the problem.
Kirk was treated with a minimally invasive procedure in which a mesh-like tool called a septal occluder was used to close the hole in her heart. Kirk, now 47, has run 17 marathons and a couple triathlons since his stroke and has four children.
Kirk believes the fact that she was young and “super healthy and fit” contributed to the misdiagnosis. “I didn’t look like a person who would have a medical problem at all,” she added.
But she is still angry that the ER doctor did not run more tests on her when she knew something more serious than a panic attack happened.
“It’s an indescribable feeling when your body won’t behave and, no matter what your brain tells it to do, it’s malfunctioning and you can’t control it,” she said. “I just feel really lucky and really happy that I’ve been able to stay healthy all these years.”