Tamsen Butler, a 41-year-old author, Air Force veteran, fitness guru, mother of two and wife, was putting away groceries with her children on July 22, 2015, when she felt an odd sensation, “like something had shifted in my head,” she remembered.
Something felt funny in her right eye, too. But not being one to slow down, she continued to put the groceries away.
“Then I bent down to put away the doggie treats, and I felt dizzy,” Tamsen said, recalling that she began to think that she was having a stroke as she sank to the floor.
But how could she be? Health was not only stressed but lived in the Butler home, from eating good foods to jogging and strength conditioning. Tamsen taught several fitness classes a week.
None of that mattered as she lay on the kitchen floor, trying to find the words that her mind knew but could not recall.
Her daughter Monet, 12, quickly took charge, telling her 10-year-old brother Abram to “get a phone. Abram, call Dad,” Abram remembered.
“For once I didn’t mind my sister telling me what to do,” Abram said.
Husband Scott thought maybe Tamsen was having a migraine, which she occasionally experienced. Scott rushed home and realized this was more serious. He called 911. Within minutes, his wife was being rushed to Midlands Hospital in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska.
Tamsen had indeed suffered a stroke. Each year almost 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke, which is more common in women.
Doctors discovered she had a hole in her heart and a clotting disorder that led to her stroke, doctors told Tamsen and Scott.
“I had had military physicals, other physicals, and no one had ever noticed it. And I had no symptoms and yet I was a time bomb,” Tamsen said.
Because of the fast response, doctors told Tamsen and her family that her chances were good for a full recovery. It would take time, however. They wanted to send her to an inpatient rehabilitation facility so she could regain her speech and re-learn to walk.
“Please, I need to go home,” she said.
Tamsen had outpatient rehabilitation, and within weeks she was surpassing all the goals that the therapist set for her.
Just when she was getting back into shape last September, Tamsen had surgery to repair the holes in her heart.
“I was not pleased with the timing, but I said, ‘OK, let’s do this,’ ” Tamsen said.
Soon, she was jogging, even though she doesn’t like it, as a replacement for strength training that doctors forbid temporarily. Now, little more than a year later, she teaches six fitness classes a week.
The experience has taught her several things.
“First, be in as good a shape as possible, because you never know when something’s going to happen to you,” she said.
Second, heart disease truly can strike anyone.
She now is a walking – or running – advertisement for that point.
Recently, she was jogging with a friend who had complained of chest pains. But the friend said she didn’t think she needed to go to the doctor because she’s young and healthy, Tamsen said.
“And I kinda put up my hands and said, ‘Helloooo!’ ”
Most of all, however, Tamsen said she learned, albeit in a very difficult way, that stroke survivors can thrive.
“The one message that I hope people can take away from my experience is that stroke survivors can recover. There is hope,” she said.
Watching how well his mother has recovered, Abram attributed her recovery to one particular factor.
“All my friends are like, ‘Dude, your mom is awesome,’ ” Abram said.
Photos courtesy of Tamsen Butler
This story originally appeared on American Heart Association News and is republished here with express permission. American Heart Association/American Stroke Association is devoted to saving people from heart disease and stroke — the two leading causes of death in the world. We team with millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policies, and provide lifesaving tools and information to prevent and treat these diseases. The Dallas-based association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. To learn more or to get involved, call 1-800-AHA-USA1, visit Heart.org or any of our offices around the country.