BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Sheryl Gann spent her life as a grassroots activist, fighting for issues close to Osage tribe community. But after surviving a stroke at age 46, the Native American woman realized she had to learn to let go.

On May 11, 2015, Gann had just gotten to work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she heard a loud snap. The sunlight beaming through the window seemed to blind her.

Her head pounded. “I kept cupping my eyes, thinking something wasn’t right,” she said.

She thought maybe she was just hungry, so she purchased something from the vending machine, but found she couldn’t seem to take a bite.

Gann, who had spent 20 years working as a patient advocate, quickly went to the bathroom where she saw her face seemed to be drooping and her right side didn’t seem to be responding like her left. Her face also felt numb.

Gann considered the possibility that it could be a stroke, but quickly pushed the idea aside, unwilling to believe it could be true.

Determined, Gann muddled through her day, not wanting to fall behind in her competitive job of internet car sales.

Still in pain by the end of the day, Gann decided to go to the hospital. But after she stopped home to check on her pet Yorkie-mix Coco, she found she couldn’t bear to do anything but lie down in a dark room.

The next morning, Gann’s headache was still excruciating and now the drooping in her face and coordination struggles had worsened, so she drove herself to the hospital.

There she had numerous tests, medications and consultations with doctors. She couldn’t remember where she lived and was confused about what year it was.

It was a week before she learned she had an ischemic stroke, which occurs when the blood vessel supplying blood to the brain becomes obstructed or occluded by a clot.

Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States. Ischemic strokes make up 87 percent of them.

Gann, who has a history of heart disease, diabetes and stroke on both sides of her family, started eating healthier, losing weight and cutting back to two cigarettes a day.

Gann said her doctor told her stress may have played a role and encouraged her to reduce it.

Recovery has been difficult, requiring Gann to rely on others for assistance.

She still lacks some peripheral vision in her right eye and loud noises make her nervous. Her short-term memory continues to be spotty, so she takes notes to keep up. She left her job, finding the stress levels unmanageable following her stroke.

Gann was surprised to find she also struggles with depression, caused by biochemical changes in the brain caused by the stroke, and now takes an anti-depressant.

“I was on the verge of suicide, but my best friend, an RN, recognized it right away and got me to the doctor,” she said.

Gann, who grew up on the Osage reservation, about an hour north of Tulsa, said the biggest change was stepping way from tribal politics.

“Everyone would come to me to fight their battles, but I can’t do that anymore,” Gann said. “I’ve had to learn to walk away and recognize that it’s not my fight. My body has said, ‘You’re done.’”

Gann has also shed weight and is changing her diet to avoid saturated fats and sodium. She raises awareness for stroke and cardiovascular disease, urging friends and family to pay attention to their health.

“I never thought it would happen to me, because I prided myself on being such a strong woman,” Gann said. “I have survived and now I’m going to open up and find a whole new career and life.”