By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Kristy Harding endured vertigo spells so intense the room seemed to spin. When she moved her head even slightly she would vomit.
Scans of her brain were inconclusive, and doctors had no solid diagnosis. She suspected that the episodes, which happened about once a month and lasted a day, were related to hormones.
Otherwise, Harding was an active young woman who enjoyed running marathons, cross training, rock climbing and eating power foods in her quest to be as physically fit as possible.
One day at age 24 an extreme attack hit Harding as she sat in church. Her vision blurred, and she couldn’t talk. Her right arm seemed paralyzed. It lasted 45 minutes through the rest of the church meeting. Then she went home, took a nap and awoke with a nasty headache.
“I figured it was just another vertigo spell, just magnified,” she said.
Her father thought it looked like she’d had a stroke. That prompted Harding to see her doctor, who told her it was a panic attack.
“I knew that what I had experienced was not a panic attack,” said Harding, who sought a second opinion. “I knew that if I didn’t push, I wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Eventually, a neurologist performed tests and suggested another brain scan. Harding went in for the scan on a Saturday. The doctor phoned first thing Monday morning and left a voicemail saying there were two spots on her brain and “it appeared as though my brain had changed,” Harding recalled.
For the next two hours, Harding and the doctor “played phone tag.”
“That was probably the longest two hours of my life,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was terrified that I was going to die.”
It turned out Harding had suffered a stroke that day in church. In fact, at some point she’d had a second stroke, although Harding doesn’t remember it.
“I did not comprehend this,” Harding said. “I was 24!”
More medical tests revealed she had patent foramen ovale, or PFO, a hole in the heart that should have closed after birth. In Harding’s case there were three holes that resulted in the strokes.
Harding underwent surgery less than a month after the diagnosis. Doctors were able to reach her heart through an artery in her leg to close the holes using two implants made of mesh and nickel.
“That was just pretty cool that they have that technology,” she said. “The medical advances of today made my recovery incredibly simple.”
That’s one reason Harding believes so strongly in the American Heart Association’s support of medical research. She volunteers with the association in Salt Lake City, Utah, doing public speaking, appearing on radio and television segments and taking part in Go Red For Women events.
“You’ve got to be responsible for your own heart,” she tells others, urging them to ask questions about their health. She also points out that stroke can affect any age group.
Because of Harding’s experience, her siblings decided to get their hearts checked, too. Two of her four siblings also had PFO.
A favorite part of her story is that repairing her heart defect allowed Harding to safely have her first child, her son Christian, now 2. If she had become pregnant before addressing her heart problem it could have killed her, she said.
Fortunately, Harding had no residual stroke effects. A year after her surgery she married her sweetheart, Ian Harding, who had four children from previous relationships. They are now preparing for the arrival of their second baby together in late October, around the time she turns 30.
Today her life is “awesome,” she said. “I never would have thought my life would begin after a stroke.”
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Photos courtesy of Kristy Harding