- Xavier Ortiz went to the ER with a headache and numbness, but clinicians dismissed it as a migraine.
- The next day he had a seizure, went into a coma, and was later diagnosed with a brainstem clot.
- A year later, Ortiz can't walk or talk. His family is urging people to know the signs of stroke.
At first, Xavier Ortiz wasn't too worried about his headache and sensitivity to noise, which set in one day last April. He was 20 years old and healthy, and suppressed his discomfort enough to play basketball with his friends.
But on the court, a few of the pals, who are nurses, noticed Ortiz's drifting eye and urged him to go the ER. While there, he complained of a severe headache, light sensitivity, blurry vision, dizziness, and numbness on one side of his body, according to his girlfriend Natasha Sanchez, who had driven Ortiz there.
"He wanted all the lights off, he was covering his eyes, he was like, 'My head's killing me,'" Sanchez remembers.
According to Sanchez, the clinician told them it was a migraine, gave Ortiz an IV and pain meds, and sent him on his way. Sanchez and Ortiz's mom, who had joined them by that point, had to carry him out to the car. "I was like, 'How is this normal?'" Sanchez told Insider.
It wasn't: The next day, Sanchez awoke to Ortiz seizing in bed. She called an ambulance, but says the EMTs didn't share her urgency. One said, "it's probably just a cold,'" Sanchez said.
At the hospital, clinicians suspected drugs, but Ortiz doesn't use drugs or drink, his stepmom Jackie Ortiz said. They thought it was a reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine, but Ortiz hadn't gotten one yet. It wasn't until the next day when a second neurologist looked at Ortiz's brain scans that the family learned he'd had a serious stroke and had only a 3% chance of survival.
The hospitals had missed their window to operate on the clot, which was in his brain stem, Jackie Ortiz said a neurological surgeon told them later.
The family is sharing their story to raise awareness about stroke symptoms in young people. The diagnosis is "not something you expect to hear, it sends chills up and down your spine," Jackie Ortiz said. "I think we all lived in this dark cloud and thinking that this is a nightmare we couldn't wake up from."
A year later, Ortiz relies on his family for care
Ortiz, now 21, was in a medically-induced coma for several weeks and underwent inpatient rehab for several more. Now, one year later, he's home but can't speak, walk, or take care of himself, despite being fully cognitively aware of what's going on, Jackie Ortiz said.
Prior to his stroke, he had graduated from a technical college and was about to apply for an apprenticeship.
Ortiz continues to undergo speech therapy, and is enrolling in aquatic and music therapy. He uses eye movements and a book with letters to communicate with his big blended family. His mom and stepmom trade off work-from-home days to care for him.
"You sit here, you look at your 20-, 21-year old son that you're about to say, 'OK, go out and be independent, become this man in the world that you wanna become,'" Jackie Ortiz said. "And then he essentially become this man that is a baby in some ways again."
But Jackie Ortiz said her stepson is in "amazing spirits."
"He wants to be walking again. He wants to bring awareness to this and just live a fulfilled life again," she said. "Because you only live once, but he got a second chance, so live life to the fullest."
Strokes are unusual in young people
Only about 10% of strokes occur in people younger than 50, and the risk goes down the younger you are, Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association, previously told Insider.
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. Symptoms include facial drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty. Ortiz's family doesn't know why his stroke occurred.
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. There have been a few reports of strokes post-COVID-19 vaccine, but they're "exceedingly rare," studies show.
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 Jackie Ortiz is urging people to know the signs and to speak up if they think something with a loved one is wrong. She wonders what would have happened had her husband taken Ortiz the ER that first night, since young people and women are more often dismissed by medical professionals.
"Maybe things would've been different for us," she said.