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true story

My Son Had a Stroke at 21

Strokes can happen at any age. Here’s what happened to my son—and how he fought to recover.

Young man and mother.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lisa Broxmeyer
Two physicians in full blue scrubs performing surgery

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One day my son Noah called me from a diner, where he was having a late night snack with his then-girlfriend.

“Mom, my vision isn’t right. The lights look like they suddenly got really bright.” Then, Noah, who was in his junior year at NYU, added, “Something is wrong.”

I thought maybe he had low blood sugar, so I told him to have a bite to eat and see how he felt. He was young and healthy, so I wasn’t too worried.

But he called back a bit later: “My eyes are still weird. I don’t think I can drive.”

At that point my husband, Gary, and I jumped in the car to take him to our home. When we saw him, we noticed Noah was speaking slowly. I thought maybe he was just anxious and trying to calm himself. At home Noah just wanted to sleep it off. I was worried enough to check on him several times during the night. When he said he just had a slight headache, I felt reassured. He gets migraines—so I figured that was the problem.

But in the morning, his vision was still off. Since it was a Saturday, Noah’s girlfriend recommended we take him to LensCrafters to meet with an optometrist. I was skeptical but Noah wanted to go.

Once there, Noah was really struggling with the field vision test. Then the optometrist asked to speak to me in private. That’s when I really knew something was wrong. The doctor looked very pale as he said, “His field vision is all dark. I need you to go to the emergency room right away. Drive safely, but fast.”

Solving the medical mystery

At first, the ER staff thought it could be an atypical migraine. But I was growing very worried. “I think my son is having a stroke,” I said. “We need to see a neurologist immediately.” I’ve had deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lungs), so clotting problems are in our family. And in the back of my mind, I’ve always worried that Noah or his older brother, Matthew, might one day have a problem with blood clots, too.

Dr. Ina Teron Molina was the angel who came in and recommended Noah stay for observation. She calmly ordered tests, and in the early morning gave us the shocking news: “Noah had a stroke. It’s in the left temporoparietal lobe and that’s why it’s affecting his vision.”

We learned that the stroke was an acute ischemic stroke, which means it was caused by a blood clot blocking blood flow to his brain. The doctor explained that he was very lucky, as it came very close to damaging the brain areas responsible for motor skills and speech. We were so fortunate that the stroke missed those areas. Still, how could our healthy 21-year-old son have had a stroke? You think of strokes as only affecting older people.

We would later learn that strokes are on the rise in younger people. According to a 2017 study published in JAMA Neurology, hospitalization due to acute ischemic stroke almost doubled in men 18-34 (and has increased in men 35-44, as well) from 1996 to 2012. While experts can’t fully explain the increase, they know that more young people have stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes (which was not the case with Noah). In total in the United States, almost 800,000 people will have a stroke each year, and 140,000 will die from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

My husband and I were worried, wondering what this would mean for his future health. So I immediately turned to an expert in blood clotting problems: Dr. Alex Spyropoulos, director of anticoagulation and clinical thrombosis services at Northwell Health. Even though he was away on vacation, Dr. Spyropoulos called me back right away. He was incredible. He called the physician who was caring for Noah, and stayed in touch about Noah’s care every step of the way.

Healing time

To prevent another blood clot, the doctors put Noah on blood thinners. They later switched him to aspirin (also a blood thinner), which he still takes every day.

The stroke damaged Noah’s peripheral vision; we would need to see an ophthalmologist to see if he could rehab his vision.

Noah had to heal emotionally, too. When you have a stroke, your brain goes through a trauma. And it needs time to recover. It’s normal to feel tired—and to feel down. In the days after the stroke, there were a lot of tears, which was completely normal. Noah would ask us, “Will I live a full life? I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I’m a good person. Why did this happen to me?”

Noah with his father, Gary, and his brother, Matthew
Noah with his father, Gary, and his brother, Matthew | Photo credit: Courtesy of Lisa Broxmeyer

And the truth is, we don’t know why it happened to him. The doctors ran genetic tests to see if Noah has an inherited clotting disorder, but the tests were negative, just as mine had been. It’s possible that we both have a genetic vulnerability that they don’t know how to test for yet.

After less than a week on the stroke unit, we got to take Noah home. We were thrilled to have him back, but his recovery was just beginning. He needed to take the remainder of the semester off from college to rest, heal and try to regain his vision.

Our first stop was to see Dr. Howard Pomeranz, an ophthalmologist with Northwell. He offered us a groundbreaking program called NovaVision, a new vision restoration therapy that helps retrain your brain to compensate for the part that has been damaged. It’s pretty amazing.

Noah was so diligent about doing his eye exercises, which involved clicking a mouse on a moving dot of light. At first he did them two or three times a day and then once or twice a day. All his hard work paid off. When we went back for his vision test, we got amazing news: He had regained more than 96% of his peripheral vision!

Out of something bad comes something good

Going through a medical crisis is hard on the whole family. It’s like we all had post-traumatic stress disorder. But I believe that when the going gets tough, you just go all in.

So I did. I saw myself as a plow, just plowing through to keep things running as close to normal as possible. And together as a family, we faced our fears and sadness with strength and resilience.

It also helped that we felt so supported by Dr. Jeffrey M. Katz, the stroke neurologist who, along with his amazing team, cared for Noah while he was in the hospital. They were so patient and reassuring. I can’t tell you how many times Noah would be crying and wondering if he was going to survive this, and a nurse would be there, sitting by his bedside, just listening.

And of course paying attention to Noah’s emotional health was just as important as his physical care following such a shocking diagnosis. After a medical crisis, you need to have your tears, maybe get angry, and work through all your emotions. It’s really essential to have someone to talk to and Noah’s therapist, Dr. Norman Fried, was an essential part of his recovery.

I’m also grateful for the doctor at LensCrafters who sent us straight to the ER. We were so lucky he knew it was a medical emergency. I called him from the emergency room and thanked him over and over again.

After taking a semester off, Noah was ready to return to school, where he created his own major: Business of Entertainment, with a minor in Media and Technology. He was going back, but as a new person, so we needed to make some changes. He didn’t want to live in his old apartment—it reminded him of his stroke. And since he still had some peripheral vision problems, we were worried about him crossing streets and reading signs in the city. So he became a commuter student.

Noah is doing great. He’s braver than he has ever been. He is confident, happy with himself, and refuses to dwell on the “what ifs” of life. He tries to do something new every day, even if it’s just trying a new food. Making good choices with his health, getting enough sleep, and doing fun things with friends has helped him stay positive.

I always tell my boys that out of something bad comes something good. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find the goodness in it.

I think Noah is stronger and more compassionate as a result of this. It’s really nice to see how he and his friends are there for each other.

This December, Noah graduates from college, but his official graduation ceremony will be next May when he walks with the whole class. We’re incredibly proud, especially knowing what he had to overcome to get to this point. And Noah is very excited because the graduation is going to be at Yankee Stadium—he’s a diehard fan! Go Yankees! Go Noah!

Noah and his friend, Ryan, standing outside Yankee stadium.
Noah and his friend, Ryan, supporting the Yanks | Photo credit: Courtesy of Lisa Broxmeyer

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Published August 27th, 2019
Two physicians in full blue scrubs performing surgery

The care you need, the expertise you trust