Michigan mom: ‘I had a stroke at 39 — and the warning signs weren’t what you’d expect’

Jenna Gibson was just 39 when she was training for a marathon five years ago — but her plans were cut short by a stroke that almost took her life.

Nearly 60% of stroke deaths occur in women, according to a recent study by Mayo Clinic — and now Gibson, a Michigan mother of two, aims to help others to be more aware and prioritize their health.

“Once I learned that strokes are happening to younger people, I had to share my story,” she told Fox News Digital. 

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“In most cases, strokes are preventable if you know what to look for.”

On the day of Gibson’s stroke, she was feeling great.

It was a beautiful day, she’d nailed a presentation at work, and she was enjoying a walk outside with her mother after dinner.

“We were talking about how I was training for the Detroit marathon for my 40th birthday, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, it felt like I was hit with a ton of bricks,” she told Fox News Digital.

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Gibson stopped walking, then suddenly fell over into the grass. 

Her mother thought she was joking at first. “She actually took a picture of me lying in the grass, saying, ‘C’mon, get up, what are you doing?’”

Her mother helped her up, but Gibson couldn’t walk straight. 

“I felt like I was drunk — something just wasn’t right,” she said.

Even so, Gibson did not experience any of the textbook symptoms of a stroke, such as the facial droop, severe headache or vision disturbances.

They made it back home, where Gibson assumed she was having a migraine. She took some headache medicine and went to bed.

“A couple of hours later, I woke up and still didn’t feel right — I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t move,” she recalled. 

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That’s when they headed to the emergency room. Gibson’s mother told the medical team that her daughter was having trouble walking and might be having a stroke.

“They checked me over, did all the tests, and didn’t see the typical signs that they would be looking for,” Gibson said. “Part of it was because I was young.”

She added, “I didn’t have the facial droop. I could walk, although not very well. I could get some words out.”

After a CT scan, the medical team decided that Gibson was likely having an optic migraine. The next morning, when she still wasn’t feeling right, the neurologist ordered another scan with contrast — and that time, the stroke finally showed up.

“They could see that there was a blockage on the left side of my brain, and I was actively having a stroke,” she said. 

Gibson was immediately airlifted to another hospital, where she had emergency brain surgery to remove the blood clot. 

“There was obviously a risk of death — if we didn’t move fast enough, the time frame would be over,” she said.

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As she was flown to the hospital, Gibson said she felt certain she was going to die and would never again see her husband or her daughters, who were just 8 and 4 at the time.

“I thought I’d never get to see my children grow up and get married, or that I’d have to live in some kind of vegetative state and would never work again.”

“I was thinking, ‘Did I tell my girls enough times that Mommy loves them? Does my husband know how proud I am of him?’”

The next thing she knew, Gibson was waking up from surgery in the ICU — and facing a long road to recovery.

“At first, I couldn’t speak at all. I couldn’t move my right side. I was trapped in my head — I could see what was happening and hear people asking me questions, but I couldn’t answer.”

Over the next few days, Gibson said her capabilities slowly started coming back. 

She received speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy — and over time began to regain movement on her right side. 

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Her first “assignment” was to tell her daughters that she loved them and that “Mommy’s going to be OK.”

After a couple of weeks, Gibson returned home and continued with outpatient therapy for three hours a day, three days a week for a four-month period.

“It was during the first six weeks that we saw the quickest improvement, and then after that, it was slower and slower,” she said.

“I had to relearn everything. And now, by the grace of God, I can do all the things.”

Today, Gibson is still completely numb on the entire right side of her body. She also still sometimes struggles with finding the right words while speaking, she said, especially when she’s tired or stressed.

“But if you saw me, I look like a normal person,” she said.

And in a full-circle moment, Gibson was finally able to complete the half-marathon last October.

Dr. Annie Tsui, chief of neurology at Access TeleCare, who is based in Texas, emphasized the prevalence of strokes among women and urged awareness.

“Strokes can occur for various reasons across different age groups and genders,” Tsui, who was not involved in Gibson’s care, told Fox News Digital. “Even though strokes can occur at any age, women between the ages of 20 and 39 are at twice the risk compared to men.”

While the primary risk factors for stroke are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, the causes for strokes in younger age groups differ from those typically associated with older people, Tsui noted. 

Those may include cardiac issues, blood clotting disorders, genetic predispositions, vascular abnormalities or trauma.

“Although no one is completely immune to the risk of stroke, individuals at higher risk should work with their doctor to develop a prevention plan,” Tsui advised. “In general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is crucial, as up to 80% of strokes can be prevented.”

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It’s crucial to be aware of the symptoms to receive treatment as quickly as possible, according to Tsui.

She recommends using the FAST acronym, shown below, as a convenient tool for identifying stroke indicators. 

“The chances of survival and positive outcomes are highest when the patient receives prompt medical attention,” Tsui told Fox News Digital. 

Some stroke treatments are only effective if administered within three hours of when symptoms begin, she warned — with the risk of permanent brain damage or death rising with each passing minute.

“It’s important to be vigilant in recognizing stroke symptoms and to seek medical assistance immediately at the first sign,” Tsui said. 

“Every second counts in reducing the risk of brain injury, permanent disability or even death.”

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