- Christina Saldívar had a sudden severe headache that at first she thought was related to her period.
- After collapsing, colleagues called at ambulance and Saldivar, then 26, learned she'd had a stroke.
- Strokes are unusual in young people but Saldivar, who's fully recovered, wants everyone to know the signs.
When Christina Saldivar went to the bathroom one Monday morning in February 2020, she was struck by the worst headache of her life.
Saldivar, then 26, was between classes at the Virginia elementary school where she teaches music, and at first chalked up the wooziness to her period. "I'm losing a lot of blood right now," she said she thought. "Maybe I'm just a little weak."
But then she felt nauseous, and soon found herself in and out of consciousness on the bathroom floor. That's when the self-proclaimed germaphobe knew something serious was going on. "I would not be on no stall floor," she laughs now.
Still, when Saldivar called her colleague using her Apple watch, she just requested the teacher take her class to their next unit. She said she didn't need the nurse — but changed her mind when her headache intensified and spread.
Saldivar remembers looking up at the nurse, and then being in an ambulance. "I just kept saying, 'my head my head my head.'" She remembers saying she wanted her mom, a comment that the technician seemed to mock. "I think she thought I was overreacting," Saldivar said.
She later learned she'd had a stroke, despite a previously clean bill of health and a cigarette- and alcohol-free lifestyle. Saldivar, now a healthy mom of a four-month old, is speaking out to raise awareness of strokes in young people, and to encourage everyone to recognize the signs.
Saldivar said she had to wait hours for a brain scan
Saldivar doesn't remember much about her hospital visit, but her family and boyfriend have told her they waited hours to be seen.
Her boyfriend got so frustrated with the perceived lack of urgency, Saldivar's mom asked him to leave the area to collect himself. "Something is majorly wrong, she's never been like this," he was saying, according to family's recollections.
Brain scans finally revealed he was right. "We need to immediately get her into surgery right now," clinicians said. She'd suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, leading to severe bleeding in her brain.
"My neurologist said we're lucky we did move at that time, because if we had waited any longer, I definitely wouldn't be here," Saldivar said.
She was treated with a coil, which stops the bleeding and can be inserted through a catheter extending from the groin to the brain. Saldivar's grateful doctors didn't need to shave her head and operate through her skull, something other patients she's connected with have undergone. "I love my hair," Saldivar said.
After about two weeks, she was released, and considers herself lucky to have recovered swiftly and completely. Many ruptured brain anyeurism survivors take years and lots of therapy to regain their ability to talk, walk, and eat.
Saldivar was driving within a few months and returned to teaching — albeit virtually at first — about a month after that. She received loads of get-well cards from students, and was celebrated at an end-of-the-school-year lunch. "They were just so happy to be see me alive and well," she said.
Strokes are unusual in young people
Strokes occur when there's a disruption of blood flow to the brain, typically either from a clot that's traveled to the brain or from spontaneous brain bleeding.
While some factors like race and a family history of strokes you can't control, others like not smoking and managing your blood pressure you can. Estrogen-containing hormonal birth control — especially among smokers — can also increase the risk.
How quickly patients get treatment affects the severity and length of any complications that follow, which can include UTIs, pneumonia, paralysis, speech and swallowing difficulties, memory loss, and even personality changes and a propensity for profanity.
"Minutes matter in terms of saving brain tissue and brain function," Lloyd-Jones said. That's why Saldívar wants people to know the acronym FAST — face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, and time to call 911 — to identify stroke symptoms.
"Me sharing my story will help people realize there's no age limit, and you need to know the signs," she said. "You could save yourself or someone else's life."