A super-fit young mum whose life changed in a split second when she had a stroke on her way to bed, after an earlier two-hour gym session, told how she first called the fire brigade, thinking she had walked into a carbon monoxide leak.
Hairdresser Charlotte Wood, 28, had just watched I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here on November 26 last year, with her builder partner, Tony Marsh, also 28, and their son, Elliott, five, when she ran upstairs to bed, as usual.
Suddenly feeling like she had walked into a “wall of gas" on the stairs, Charlotte, of Crawley, West Sussex, recalled:
“It felt like being drunk and stepping outside, when the fresh air suddenly hits you."
Charlotte, Elliot and Tony (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I lost my balance and thought I must have walked into a carbon monoxide leak."
“I called downstairs for Tony, who had been letting the dog, Teddy, out into the garden and he came running up, grabbed Elliot out of bed and got us all over to our neighbours."
“They called the fire brigade to come and check the house for a carbon monoxide leak, but the firefighters couldn't find any gas."
“By this time, my face was going numb and I was thinking, 'I'm having a stroke', even though everyone was telling me I was wrong."
“I couldn't feel the left side of my face. I could talk, but I was stumbling all over the place."
“My neighbour gave me a glass of water and on the left-hand side of my mouth it felt boiling hot, while the right-hand side was freezing cold."
Charlotte and Elliott (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I was confused, because I didn't know whether she'd given me hot or cold water to drink. It was like I had a hot side and a cold side."
Charlotte recognized the signs of a stroke from watching graphic TV adverts from Public Health England's Act FAST campaign.
But when she looked in the glass of her neighbour's door to see if her face had also dropped—another tell-tale sign—it looked normal.
Still, Tony called an ambulance, which took two hours to arrive, after which paramedics detected some evidence of carbon monoxide contamination when they tested Charlotte, but deemed the levels too low to be causing her symptoms.
“I told them I was having a stroke, but they kept saying I was too young. They thought I had an ear infection, but I'd had one before and it hadn't felt like this."
With Public Health England's data showing the average age of a female stroke victim in England to be 73, Charlotte said the paramedics seemed reluctant to accept that a stroke was causing her symptoms.
“I kept asking them if I was doing to die. They told me I wasn't, then I remember projectile vomiting all over my neighbour's doorstep three times, until I was bringing up bile."
“Then all of a sudden my vision went. It was as if I was really, really drunk and the world was spinning."
Taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance, after a day in A&E, Charlotte said CT scans finally confirmed her initial fear that she had suffered a stroke.
Looking back with horror, she said:
“I've got a little boy, so it really scares me when I think of what might have happened."
“No one seemed to think it was a stroke, though, because of my age."
Charlotte started to see why a stroke had not been the obvious diagnosis when she was admitted to a specialist ward where, as the only patient under 50, she was asked by shocked nurses what on earth she was doing there.
Charlotte and Tony (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I was so scared. I had blurred and double vision by this time. I'm quite an anxious person anyway and all I kept saying was, 'Am I going to die?'"
Then, knowing from a client that hair extensions have to be cut out before having an MRI scan, because they contain metal, anticipating she would need one, Charlotte ripped her own extensions out, so she could save them.
“I'd faced the fact I'd had a stroke, but, even though I was so weak I could barely lift my head off the pillow, I decided I wasn't having my hair cut off and going for a scan with it in clumps."
Her glamorous eyelash extensions also had to be removed by Charlotte's beautician friend, Nicole Brown, 21, at the hospital, before the scan, which she had on November 29.
Transferred afterwards to a stroke rehabilitation unit 10 miles away, where she learned to walk again, she said:
“If I tried to walk, I would just fall over to the left side."
“I could speak and understand everyone and my memory was fine, but I couldn't walk. I couldn't lift my left leg. I was dragging it when I tried to walk."
Charlotte and friend, Nikkita (PA Real Life/Collect)
But with Christmas looming, after just a week and a half in rehabilitation, doctors allowed Charlotte to spend weekends at home, which she says helped her to regain her mobility.
“My mum, my brother and my partner all let me lean on them for support, but I was moving a lot more than when I was in the hospital, so I was recovering faster."
“If Elliott was hungry, I wanted to make his sandwich, so I was forcing myself to move around. I was using the kitchen work surfaces to hold myself up and did much better at home, so on December 16 the doctors discharged me."
Doctors told Charlotte, who went to the gym three or four times a week, that something she had done earlier in the day had damaged a large blood vessel in her neck, affecting the blood supply to her brain—known as cervical artery dissection. This is one of the most common causes of stroke in people under 50, according to Bupa UK.
Charlotte was also told that no one will ever know what caused the stroke, it could have been her gym session, but it could also have been caused simply by picking her little boy up or turning her head awkwardly when driving.
“It had definitely happened earlier that day, even though I never felt a thing. You don't feel it, because it's an internal injury, so it's only when the symptoms start later on that you know something is wrong."
It's #CharityTuesday and we've got some good news to share. We're delighted that our #RebuildingLives film has been… https://t.co/OGNimgOLXp— Stroke Association (@Stroke Association) 1582019112.0
One small comfort is that this kind of stroke does not leave people at risk of having another.
But learning that something so simple can have such a devastating impact has been less reassuring for Charlotte, who is now well on the way to making a full recovery.
Knowing that she could not work in the run-up to Christmas, which would make money tight, Charlotte's friend Yazmin Fernandez kindly set up a GoFundMe page, to help the family financially.
Elliott and pet dog, Teddy(PA Real Life/Collect)
Now walking, but with a limp, because her left leg remains very stiff, she is not currently allowed to drive or return to the gym and still suffers with extreme tiredness and occasional blurred vision.
Charlotte, who is still not working, said:
“If this has taught me anything it is not to take for granted all the stuff I could do before, and I now know that your life can change in a moment."
To donate to Charlotte's GoFundMe page, click here.