It started with a headache, then vomiting.
Fifteen-year-old Sam Vaught from Sioux City, Iowa suffered a stroke almost seven months ago.
He was 14 at the time when a blood clot formed in one of his arteries that supplies blood to his brain. That damage was severe – 75 per cent of Vaught’s right side of the brain was impacted.
The road to recovery isn’t an easy feat. At a time when most teenagers are supposed to be starting their first day of high school, Vaught spent it in a coma. For three weeks, he lay still in a hospital bed, unable to respond to those around him.
The teenager now spends almost 15 hours a week undergoing intense therapy to regain movement. He had to learn how to speak and walk again. The left side of his body is still partially paralyzed.
Vaught’s family says the medical emergency has been “life changing.” They are now sharing his story as a cautionary tale: a stroke can happen at any age.
“That’s one thing to be aware of. Stroke can happen to anybody,” Justin Vaught, Sam’s father told NBC. “It’s changed our lifestyle. It’s changed how we think of the future and how we cherish our kids.”
Strokes for young people in Canada are on the rise
In Canada, 62,000 strokes occur each year, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation. That’s a stroke every nine minutes. The foundation found that stroke in people under 50 has increased by almost 25 per cent in the last 10 years.
But why is there an increase? According to Dr. Dar Dowlatshahi, a Stroke Neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital, it has to do with a changing lifestyle among young adults.
“More of their social activity will be over the internet. And that just simply means less physical activity,” Dowlatshahi said. “They are getting the risk factors much earlier than they should be getting them because of the lifestyle choices.”
Dowlatshahi points to another contributing factor that is leading to higher stroke rates in young people.
“Although we have been able to reduce it in the older populations…young people continue to smoke and in certain areas in Canada there is actually an increase in smoking rates.”
These factors are reasons why it’s crucial to recognize the symptoms of a stroke and understand that it can happen to anyone, Dowlatshahi said.
“Traditionally we recognize stroke as a condition that affects the elderly but we now know that is not true, it affects all age groups.”
What makes the situation particularly troublesome is that most people don’t know how to recognize a stroke when it’s happening to young people, he explained.
“People that are least likely to get to the emergency department on time are those young people in their 20s and 30s,” Dowlatshahi said.
“And the reason is, no one thinks that they might be having a stroke at that age group, so people are very slow to react, very slow to present at the hospital.”
How to spot a stroke
According to a recent Heart and Stroke Foundation poll, almost half of Canadians don’t know the signs of a stroke. And only one-third know what a stroke is.
A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area in the brain is cut off. Roughly 1.9 million brain cells die every minute after a stroke.
That’s why doctors say it’s crucial to get immediate help. The faster someone gets to a hospital, the better their chances of survival and recovery, experts say.
Global News spoke to a neurologist to understand how someone can recognize the signs of a stroke.
- There is usually sudden numbness or weakness of the face, especially on one side. A stroke often causes a person’s face to droop.
- It is also very common for a stroke victim to have arm weakness and numbness. If the patient can’t lift their arm, it’s a sign of a stroke.
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking and understanding. If you find someone is having difficulty putting words together or their speech is slurred, they could be suffering a stroke.
- If all these signs are evident and the person seems confused or lacks balance, doctors say it’s important to act fast. You should call 911 right away.
Here are the signs outlined by the Heart & Stroke Foundation: