Photo: Instagram / @ hopeheals  On the morning of April 21, 2008, I was in my kitchen when I became dizzy and I got nausea, and I had a headache. Even so, there was no reason for me to take these symptoms seriously. I was a young woman I just had my first baby, a boy, six months ago.
But these symptoms were getting worse and I felt worse. Suddenly, the headache became so severe that I fell to the kitchen floor arms and knees. Immediately my limbs were completely numbed. I started to puke, but luckily I could call my husband Jay, who dialed 91
I had a brain stem hit, as I learned later; It is a type of stroke that occurs in the part of the brain that controls basic functions such as breathing and heartbeat. The stroke was caused by the rupture of an arteriovenous dysfunction (AVM) in my brain. This is a lump of abnormal blood vessels without capillaries between the vein and the artery. This causes too much blood to flow through the blood vessels and weakens them over time until they explode. It's a congenital condition, and it was the biggest AVM my doctors ever saw, as I found out later. (Related: 7 Symptoms That You Should Never Ignore)
Fortunately, radiologist and neurosurgeon Nestor Gonzalez, MD, was on call at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles when an ambulance took me to intensive care. After an MRI scan of my brain, Dr. Gonzalez performed a 16-hour brain operation. To remove the broken AVM, physicians removed over 60% of my cerebellum, the area of the brain that contributes to balance and muscle coordination. The operation was life-saving, but had serious complications.
For the first 40 days after surgery, I was in intensive care. I have no memory of that time, and as you can imagine, waking up was absolutely terrible. I could not eat, I could not walk, I could not see and I could not speak. I could not believe that this was my new life. I did not even understand what happened to me. I had barely heard of a stroke except one of my grandparents had one. Certainly, a healthy 26-year-old woman could not have had a life-threatening medical event related to the elderly. (Related: 10 Stroke Symptoms Everyone Should Know)
The worst part of my recovery was that I could not take care of my little son. My sweet little baby was six months old when I had the stroke and I could not take care of him at all. I had to make the other people complete. I stopped nursing him and did not care about him at all, and it was awful.
But despite all odds, my condition continued to improve. I was in hospital for about two and a half months before going to a rehabilitation facility. When I first went to the detox clinic, I still could not walk or eat and these were the two biggest problems for me. I was completely in a wheelchair and was fed through a tube in the stomach. For almost two years, I've learned to relearn these things, and although I can, my skills are nowhere near as they were before the stroke.
Today, 10 years later, I still have dramatic deficits. I can not drive, I can not walk normally (so I mainly use a wheelchair), I have a hand that has reduced the engine control, I have a strong double vision in my eyes, I am deaf in one ear facial paralysis on one side, and I still have big dysphagia.
I had 11 surgeries because of all these complications, so in a sense I feel like a bizarre science project. My doctors performed this crazy operation called Crossfacial Nerve Transfer. A muscle was taken from my thigh and put in my face because my face was hanging so hard. (See also: This woman's potentially fatal brain condition has been diagnosed as having allergy.)
I still have all these big deficits today – but I'm fine. I am alive and well, and although I can not do certain things and my body is very handicapped, I am here. I had a second baby a few years ago, so I have two kids now. Life has really gone on for me.
My husband and I started a nonprofit organization called Hope Heals, and we wrote a book with the same name. We talk all over the country and tell our story of hope after stroke and stroke, and we talk about tragedies and the redefinition of everything when your life is turned upside down. We have also started a camp for families dealing with a disability. We invite a whole family to spend a holiday week and just celebrate.
I work a lot with the American Stroke Association. I modeled for their FAST campaign, which stands for Facial, Arm, Speech and Time. The idea is that you need to act quickly if any of these symptoms occur, and "T" is "time to get to the hospital." They had posters for every symptom, so I modeled the face pack. I actually met a woman in South Dakota who had seen the FAST campaign with my face and knew she had a stroke. She went to the hospital and says she saved her life. (Did you know that diet drinks can increase your risk of stroke?)
When I heard that Luke Perry had died of a stroke, I was so sad that he died so young. After all, his death is a reminder that life is often shorter than we think, and it's important how we live and love today. From a medical point of view, it is a reminder to younger people that we are not invincible and things like stroke happen. There is no way to avoid some causes, such as an AVM that I was born with. However, it is important for people of all ages to understand the warning signs and to know that the time for a medical intervention is crucial, which can save people's lives. (See also: I was fit, ate well, and still had a stroke at 41. Here's what I wish I should have known.)
Although I live with severe disabilities, I'm a whole person. I have a wonderful support system, an incredible husband and sweet family members and friends who have saved me all from this nightmare. I also have a deep sense in this terrible tragedy. I believe that God has really given me the opportunity to lead another life, but a life that should inspire others and encourage them on their journey – that's why I feel very special in my intentions.
This story originally appeared on Health.com by Katherine Wolf, as Hannah Harper was told.