In the blink of an eye: Young stroke victim fights her way back

While Sarah Kucharski focused on a looming deadline as special projects editor for Waynesville’s Smoky Mountain News, a blood clot in her brain stem was about to change her life forever.

Only 28, she was experiencing a stroke — but it would take weeks to find that out.

It began unexpectedly when she got up from her desk to speak with someone across the office. “It was like everything just went weird. It was like being extremely drunk and extremely cognizant at the same time,” she recalled four years later. Fighting confusion and dizziness, she stumbled back to her office. After she spoke to three of her coworkers, including her husband, Travis Bumgardner, the newspaper’s art director, she reluctantly agreed to go to the MedWest-Haywood hospital.

The next 24 hours became mostly a blur to Kucharski — marked by whirlwinds of nausea and the concerned faces of her parents at the hospital and during the transfer to Mission Hospital.

That was then: When Sarah Kucharski was transferred to Mission, doctors did not immediately recognize she was having a stroke because it never showed up on any scans. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kucharski

A set of symptoms develop

When she arrived at Mission Hospital, her condition had not improved. She had extreme double vision and couldn’t walk. Unable to find a clear explanation after various scans and tests, doctors originally diagnosed Kucharski with vertigo.

“They said that it would go away as quickly as it had come on,” she says. But, one week later, Kucharski felt no relief and could barely move from the bed to the bathroom.

Later in the week, while she washed her hands, Kucharski made a profound discovery: She could not feel the heat of the hot water. But her doctors attributed the change to an infected IV site in her hand.

At the hospital, she did physical therapy and used a walker to get around. After she was discharged, she realized that she had lost pain and temperature sensation all along the right side of her body. “We knew this was not normal,” she says.

A clinical diagnosis surfaces

Kucharski’s family doctor referred her to a neurologist, Dr. Matthew Engelbrecht of Asheville Neurology Specialists. After speaking with Kucharski for 20 minutes, he told her that her symptoms — sudden dizziness and sudden trouble walking and seeing, along with drooping of the face and loss of sensation on one side of her body — were “textbook” for a stroke.

Other common symptoms associated with stroke include sudden trouble speaking or understanding, and a sudden severe headache with no known cause. However, the only thing that wasn’t textbook about Kucharski’s stroke was her age.

“Strokes are not common in someone her age, and it hadn’t shown up on any of the testing that was done and it never did,” Engelbrecht explains. “I ended up making a clinical diagnosis because the symptoms fit so perfectly into a specific type of stroke.”

The type of stroke that Kucharski had is known as an ischemic stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, this type of stroke is the most common, occurring in almost 87 percent of all cases.

Other types of stroke include hemorrhagic (when a weakened blood vessel ruptures) and a transient ischemic attack (often called a “mini stroke,” and caused by a temporary clot).

“Strokes can happen to people who take care of themselves, and it can also happen to people who are more prone to stroke, like folks with higher blood pressure,” Engelbrecht says.

The Southeast has some of the highest stroke rates in country, he notes, and is considered part of “the stroke belt.” Doctors and researchers are still trying to figure out why stroke rates are higher in the Southeast, but lifestyle risks like traditional Southern diets and smoking, plus uneven access to health care may be to blame.

This is now: She has now become a patient advocate — both for stroke survivors and those who suffer from FMD.Photo by Caitlin Byrd

A different life begins

Unable to work, Kucharski went on leave from her job and found herself helpless at just 28 years old. “I could not pour myself a glass of water. I went from being a very active, involved, on-deadline kind of person to pretty much spending the next six months laying naked on the futon,” she says.

Though strokes tend to happen more commonly in people older than 65, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 664 18-44 year-olds had a stroke in 2010.

Married less than two years, Kucharski started to feel the strain of her stroke on her relationship. “I could not contribute to our house in terms of income, in terms of taking care of anything, nor could I really contribute to our relationship. I was pretty much completely in need,” she reveals.

The realization that her life had changed hit hard. “It was a loss of identity because I was someone who was very self-sufficient and did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it,” she explains. She paused, adding, “All of the sudden, I couldn’t be me anymore.”

But with help from her parents and her husband, Kucharski did her physical therapy, used flashcards and celebrated the small victories. One day, she finally was able to pour herself a glass of water. Eventually, the once-avid cook was able to make soup for dinner.

Now Kucharski works as managing editor for the magazine Smoky Mountain Living, a sister company of the Smoky Mountain News. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with fibromuscular dysplasia, a rare disease that causes arteries to narrow and was found to have contributed to her stroke.

She has now become a patient advocate — both for stroke survivors and those who suffer from FMD. She operates multiple blogs, including one that helps fellow FMD patients connect with one another.

“I just want to speak up because I can, and for others who can’t,” she says.


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