- Christy Kirk had a stroke at age 27. Doctors first told her she was having a panic attack.
- Doctors are more likely to misdiagnose strokes in women and people younger than 45.
- Kirk has since made a full recovery. She has run 17 marathons since suffering a stroke.
In 2003, Christy Kirk had a stroke aged 27 – and doctors first thought she was having a panic attack.
Kirk, a Boston-based dentist and marathon runner, was training for her first Boston Marathon at the time. She was healthy, running every day after spending 5-8 hours in dental school.
A day after returning home from a practice run, Kirk began to feel “a bit withdrawn” and thought she might have run too hard. A few minutes later, as she sat on her couch, the entire right side of her body went numb.
Kirk was suffering a stroke, which occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen, caused by a blood clot that broke through a small hole in his heart called an atrial septal defect.
She said her eyes were closing to one side and she couldn’t speak without articulating her words.
“I tried to use my phone to call my husband, but realized when I had to leave a voicemail for him that I couldn’t even form words,” she said. “That’s when I panicked massively.”
Strokes are one of the leading causes of death and disability in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and prompt treatment is essential to prevent serious side effects. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in women, and in the United States, 1 in 5 women between the ages of 55 and 75 will have a stroke.
But strokes are often misdiagnosed in young women like Kirk. People under 45 and women are disproportionately more likely to be misdiagnosed in the week before a debilitating stroke, according to Johns Hopkins.
Doctors initially diagnosed his stroke as a panic attack
After trying to call her husband, Kirk went to his neighbor and asked them to take him to the hospital.
In the ER, Kirk said she still could not speak without stuttering, but her vital signs were normal and she had regained the ability to move her eyes. The ER doctor diagnosed Kirk with a panic attack and told him she “seems fine.” He sent her home with a prescription for an anxiolytic.
“I knew I was not a panicking person, I had never panicked in my life and everything was going great for me at that point,” she said. “I called a very close friend. She came and stayed with me because I was scared I thought I might die at home alone.”
Part of what led to Kirk’s misdiagnosis was that the blood clot in his brain caused by the stroke was so small it didn’t show up on an initial CT scan. Kirk went to another doctor for an MRI scan a few days later, which provided a better picture of his brain to pinpoint the problem.
Kirk has fully recovered
Doctors treated Kirk with a minimally invasive procedure that placed a mesh-like tool called a septal obturator to close the hole in his heart. Now 47, Kirk has run 17 marathons and a few triathlons since the stroke and had four children.
Kirk said the fact that she was young and “super healthy and fit” could have contributed to the misdiagnosis. “I didn’t look like a person who would have a medical condition at all,” she added. But she still feels frustrated that the ER doctor didn’t run more tests when she knew something more serious than a panic attack had happened to her.
“It’s an indescribable feeling when your body doesn’t behave and no matter what your brain tells it to do, it malfunctions and you can’t control it,” she said. “I feel really lucky and really happy to have been able to stay healthy all these years.”
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