By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Cyteria Knight spent more than a quarter-century caring for others as a social worker. Then a stroke forced her to become the patient.

Knight was visiting her daughter Raquanza Miller in Pineville, North Carolina, on Jan. 17 when she suddenly passed out. Susan Miller, Knight’s partner of more than 35 years, called 911.

At a Charlotte hospital, doctors determined Knight, then 59, was having a hemorrhagic, or bleeding, stroke, which accounts for 13 percent of strokes. Doctors also identified a second aneurysm at risk of bursting.

Knight was put in a medically induced coma and awoke two days later.

Minutes before she passed out on that day in January, she’d complained of a sudden and severe headache, a symptom of hemorrhagic strokes. A long history of smoking — she’d smoked for 47 years — had increased her stroke risk, doctors told her.

Stroke is the nation’s No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability among U.S. adults. Knight survived, but that isn’t the case for all African-Americans who suffer strokes. In fact, African-Americans are most likely to die from strokes, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Knight, who lives in Charlotte, spent nearly a month in the hospital before being transferred to an in-patient rehabilitation center, where she underwent daily speech, occupational and physical therapy.

The transition from caregiver to patient has been difficult, Knight said in an interview with Minnesota-based nonprofit CaringBridge.

“My God helps me to keep calm and sort of accepting of where I’m at, and feeling good that it’s fine for now,” she said.

Miller, a social worker and counselor for more than 30 years, became Knight’s full-time caregiver, providing support and advocating for her care, even arranging to have the couple’s dog Halo, a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, visit Knight at the hospital.

“To be able to hold her in my arms and having her breathe next to my heart, those kinds of things feel great,” Knight said.

Stroke survivor Cyteria Knight (left) with her partner and caregiver Susan Miller and their dog Halo. (Photo courtesy of CaringBridge)

Stroke survivor Cyteria Knight (left) with her partner and caregiver Susan Miller and their dog Halo. (Photo courtesy of CaringBridge)

There are 2.2 million family caregivers in the U.S. who are caring for stroke patients. For National Family Caregivers Month, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association is encouraging caregivers to share their stories and access resources and support through its Support Network and CaringBridge.

The couple joined the local hospital’s support groups for stroke survivors and those navigating aneurysms, and leans on their close friends and family.

“The awful circumstances that brought us here have also brought about some of the most wonderful experiences connecting us with others,” Miller wrote on a CaringBridge blog.

While caring for Knight, Miller struggled with her own health issues. With no health insurance, 59-year-old Miller was unable to afford her medications for Type 2 diabetes, leading to swelling in her feet and legs that made it difficult to stand. She has since gained assistance from a nonprofit to pay for medications.

“Cyteria and I are learning the hard lesson of pacing yourself and making sure to take rest breaks,” Miller wrote in a CaringBridge post.

Although health issues continue to mount – Knight, now 60, was declared legally blind in September and continues to experience short-term memory loss, and Miller was recently diagnosed with a bone cancer recurrence – the couple draws strength from their faith. They focus on eating healthy and walking – with the support of their canes – 6 to 8 miles a week.

“The support of our family, friends, doctors, nurses, helpers, as well as our faith in God and our commitment to each other’s well-being truly sustain us until we can get to feeling like winners again,” Miller wrote on CaringBridge.

In a video posted on CaringBridge, Knight encouraged other stroke survivors to find strength as they navigate the challenges of recovery.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but I would say this: If it happens, then you need to take what has happened and find some way … to make it positive,” she said. “Because it is. I honestly feel that way.”

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