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Catherine Zalewski is a mother of 2, a certified personal trainer, a former Mrs. New Jersey and a stroke survivor. She suffered her first stroke at the age of 28, about 6 months after giving birth to her daughter. It was discovered that she had a hole in heart which was repaired through surgery. She suffered another stroke shortly after the birth of her second child.

When Catherine had her first stroke, she was home alone with her infant and didn't know what was happening. She didn't receive treatment until 7 hours later. It took weeks for her to relearn how to do everyday tasks like walking and taking care of her baby. During the second stroke, she was at work with a client and someone realized what was happening. They called 911 immediately and she was taken to the hospital. She received tPA within an hour and it made a world of difference. This time, she went home within a week and was able to go back to her normal routine quickly.

Catherine knows firsthand how important it is for stroke patients to receive quality care in a timely fashion. That is why she is a volunteer advocate for the American Heart Association| American Stroke Association. Recently, Catherine testified before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee on legislation that will improve the stroke system of care in New Jersey. She looks forward to continuing her advocacy as the bill makes it's way through the Legislature.

In December of 2006, I was a healthy 45 year old woman, newly divorced, with a high stress job and living by myself for the first time in my life. I started having severe headaches and couldn’t figure out why.  Two weeks before the onset of the headaches, I had begun to take birth control pills again for premenopausal symptoms.  I was in and out of the hospital and clinics for two weeks while trying to figure out what was going on. 

My youngest sister had come to stay with me to accompany me to my neurologists. On the morning of the appointment, I woke up, tripped getting into the shower and didn’t quite feel right. After dressing, I reached the top of the staircase and couldn’t figure out how to get down.  I ended up sliding down the staircase on my butt. My sister asked if we needed an ambulance but since I could still talk, I told her no. 

She quickly drove me to the doctor’s office and asked the doctor if I had had a stroke. He told my sister that I hadn’t but he was going to admit me to the hospital for some additional tests. 

A couple of days later, the doctor said I had actually had a stroke.  I spent that night crying myself to sleep unsure how I was going to be able to go home and live independently let alone return to work.  I couldn’t figure out how to work my Blackberry (this was 2006) or dial the phone that was next to my hospital bed. I couldn’t even wash my hair.

A few days later, I asked one of the wonderful nurses how a healthy 45 year old could have a stroke.  She said that it’s becoming more common. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  My family genetics at work!  

As far as anyone can tell, my outcome was positive, no noticeable deficits.  I was lucky! My stroke was a wakeup call. It made me “Stop and Smell the Roses”.  Now I play as hard as I work.   

I’m thankful for the work the American Heart and American Stroke Association does to educate the public on what can be done to prevent heart disease and reduce stroke.  I’m also very thankful for the support of my family and friends who helped me through a very frightening time.

Debra Wells, District of Columbia

Don’t ever let yourself wind up like Debra Wells. Doctors confirm her heart stopped for almost 20 seconds.  Today she’s alive to tell about it, and it was a rough road. 

Before her heart problems, Debra was a successful business woman, working as Vice President of Business Development for a publicly traded company.  She worked hard and played hard.

However, her world changed when she collapsed while on a trip with her husband in Maui. What began as a migraine headache became a stroke.  “In that moment I was completely—and instantly—DEPENDENT,” said Debra.  For two years, she went to physical, speech, and occupational therapy. She was told to “accept her limitations.”  She worked to improve her health and gradually returned to work.

Seven years later, her heart stopped on two more occasions, once it was for 19.5 seconds. As Debra describes it, “For me … it was a head on collision with reality.  No more denial.  In those precious 19 and half seconds that could have taken my life, I realized I could no longer treat my health like a business deal.” Debra has since had two pacemakers implanted. She still has high blood pressure, and does everything she can to control it by exercising regularly, eating healthy, and taking medication. 

Now, over 16 years after having a stroke, Debra is making a difference by sharing her story with others as a You’re the Cure advocate. She has shared her story at the Maryland Million Hearts Symposium, on Washington DC’s CBS TV station WUSA9, in addition to other venues.

Debra urges women to take care of themselves and know their risk factors and the important “numbers”—blood pressure, cholesterol, and BMI. She encourages them to accept and respect themselves as working women, mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.

Debra says, “I am in a way grateful for the 19.5 seconds that almost took my life, because in turn, it taught me to treasure every second I’ve had since, every relationship, [and every] day in my life.”

Visit the American Heart Association’s website to learn more about simple and important changes you can make to improve your heart health.

Have a story of your own to tell?    Enter it HERE (it’s confidential). 

On July 9, 2014, I suffered a stroke. I was as healthy as one could be, a triathlete and marathoner in the middle of training for my 5th marathon. When I arrived at hospital, I experienced first-hand how a hospital handles a stroke victim.  It was remarkable to witness and I am happy to say I have made a complete recovery and 10 months later I completed that 5th marathon with a new personal record.

Your donations matter. Being part of You’re the Cure, matters. Your involvement helps save lives by encouraging hospitals to implement programs and protocols that help people like me get the care they need right away.

Not only do I work for the American Heart Association, I am proud to be a You’re the Cure Advocate. I know that the work the American Heart Association does in Washington D.C., Augusta, Maine and all across the country ensures that people like me have access to the to the tools they need to make their lives as happy and healthy as mine!

As you can imagine, the work we do here at the AHA is near and dear to my heart and I am able spread awareness not only as a staff member but as an advocate and survivor!

 

 

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