By Keysha Drexel
Almost every time Melisa Zwilling gets a headache, her mind flashes back to a night eight years ago that changed her life.
In 2004, the Vestavia Hills woman suffered a transient ischemic attack, which is a form of a stroke sometimes referred to as a warning stroke on mini stroke.
“It’s something I am aware of every single day, and when I do get a headache, it takes me back and reminds me of how lucky I am to be here,” she said.
That awareness is something Melisa said she is hoping to share with other women when she speaks at the American Heart Association’s Heart Guild Holiday Luncheon and Fashion Show on Dec. 4 at The Club.
Melisa, now 41, said she had no idea what was happening to her when the transient ischemic attack struck.
“I was healthy. I had never smoked, never drank. It completely floored me,” she said.
When the attack first hit, Melisa, an attorney who handles complicated Medicare compliance cases with the Carr Allison firm, said she thought she was just over-stressed and tired and had developed a bad headache.
“The headache got worse and worse, and it was on just one side of my head. I was trying to get some work done on my computer, and for some reason, I just could not spell the words ‘pine straw,’ so I called to my husband,” she said.
Melisa said she told her husband, Ed, that she thought she just needed to go to bed and rest, but Ed suspected there was something more going on than just a bad headache.
“He started asking me to touch my nose with each hand, and then he asked me who the president was and I remember telling him Jimmy Carter,” she said. “That’s when Ed knew something else was going on. I was very fortunate he knew the warning signs of a stroke.”
From there, her condition deteriorated quickly, she said.
“I knew what I was trying to say, but as I’m trying to talk to Ed, nothing is coming out but gibberish and I’m getting more and more frustrated,” she said. “Ed knew we had to get to the hospital.”
But Melisa’s ordeal wasn’t over once she made it to the emergency room.
“The doctor at the emergency room told me he thought I was having a migraine and told me I should go home,” she said. “But I pushed it. I told him I respected his opinion, but I thought something else was going on.”
The doctor sent in a neurologist to examine Melisa and within 30 minutes, she said, she was admitted to the hospital, where she stayed for four days to recover from the transient ischemic attack.
“If I had just accepted the first doctor’s opinion, I might not be here today. It was the lawyer in me that made me question his diagnosis,” she said.
Melisa said she speaks at events like the Heart Guild Holiday Luncheon and Fashion Show because she wants to encourage other women to speak up like she did.
“That’s one reason I got involved with the American Heart Association. So many times, particularly with women, doctors will write something off as hormones and they won’t dive deeper to understand what might really be going on with a woman’s health,” she said.
Melisa said she tells women she speaks with to listen to their bodies and to not just accept other peoples’ opinions when it comes to their bodies.
“You know your body better than anyone else. You know when something is wrong. I hope more women will listen to that inner voice,” she said.
Most studies on strokes and heart attacks are conducted using male subjects, Melisa said, and for women, the warning signs and symptoms can be different.
“The typical warning signs apply to men because all the studies are done on men, but more women die of heart disease and stroke,” she said.
Melisa said almost immediately after she was released from the hospital, she felt the overwhelming need to talk to other people about how to recognize the signs of strokes and heart attacks.
She said she feels she has a responsibility to spread the word about heart disease and strokes because she was spared permanent disability–and death.
“I know that a lot of people have died or ended up paralyzed by the same thing that happened to me. I started looking for ways to volunteer with the American Heart Association,” she said.
That led Melisa to enter and win several pageants, including the Mrs. Alabama United States pageant and the Mrs. Alabama International pageant.
“I had never been in pageants before but thought it would be a great way to have a platform to talk about heart disease and strokes. I knew I would have a big audience at the pageants,” she said.
Melisa says she doesn’t mind a large audience, though she still gets nervous before some speaking engagements.
“I’m an attorney and I’m used to speaking in front of people, but it is harder to do that when you are telling your own story and there’s a lot of emotional aspects of your story. It can be hard, but I hope by being open about my experience, people will really listen to my message,” she said.
Melisa said she feels her experience with the mini stroke changed her life for the better.
“I had a wonderful life before it happened, but the whole thing brought a lot of things in focus for me. It made me look at the big picture and wonder why I am here and why I was spared,” she said.
For one thing, the transient ischemic attack led Melisa’s doctors to find out that she has a blood disorder called Factor V Leiden, which causes the blood to have an increased tendency to clot.
Now, Melisa has to take an aspirin every day and blood thinners when she flies.
Because of the attack and her blood disorder, Melisa had to stop taking birth control pills. That led to the reasons she calls the attack a blessing in disguise.
Melisa said at the time of her transient ischemic attack, she was a driven young professional focused on her career and her marriage.
“I was concentrating on making partner and wasn’t really thinking about starting a family, so I guess this was God’s way of kicking me in the pants and telling me it was time to do something else because almost immediately, I became pregnant,” she said.
Now, as the mother of 7-year-old Autumn and 2-year-old Grayson, Melisa said she knows exactly what her role in life should be.
“I really know a love that I never imagined. This is what my life is supposed to be,” she said.
Being a mother has made reaching out to other women about heart disease and strokes even more important to her, Melisa said.
“I think about women who are taken away from their children and the children who lose their mothers to strokes and heart disease, and I want to do everything I can to fight that,” she said.
As a working mother of two, Melisa says she understands the tendency she sees for most women to put themselves on the back-burner and to ignore health issues and regular check-ups at the doctor.
“We take care of everyone else and we are the last ones that we take care of and because of that, we put ourselves at huge risk,” she said,
“My plea for women is to think about that and don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself. It is not a selfish act–it is an act of love for everyone in your life for you to take care of yourself.”