2023 Real Woman: Dawn Turnage

The following is Dawn's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

Suffering a mini-stroke at age 45 inspired Columbus, Ohio, resident Dawn Turnage to embrace a healthier lifestyle and raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of stroke, particularly among Black people.

Committed to a workout challenge with her co-workers, Dawn Turnage pushed through a tough circuit training routine despite the fatigue and migraine headaches she had been experiencing over the past few days. 

Her vision also had been blurry, and she kept dropping things. A few times she wondered how she had ended up on the floor. Although she had health insurance, she was reluctant to call a doctor. 

“You just deal with it, especially as a Black woman,” she said. “In our community, there’s a lack of access and education, so you take it day by day, shake it off or use home remedies.”

Working two jobs at the time, Turnage figured she just needed some rest. But while driving home, she lost time at a traffic stop, jolted back to awareness by the sound of blaring horns. She realized that she might have blacked out.

As she tried to relax at home, she saw stars and felt a tingling numbness in her hands and arms. Then she received a call from her sister, April Washington, and her two-year-old daughter, Naomi. “My niece would not stop crying because she wanted to talk to TeTe, which is what she calls me,” Turnage said.

During the call, Naomi asked why Turnage was making funny faces. Worried Turnage was having a stroke, her sister, a Certified Physician Assistant, went through the F.A.S.T. checklist, asking if Turnage had experienced facial drooping, arm numbness or slurred speech. 

Aware that time (the T in F.A.S.T.) is critical to prevent brain damage, Washington asked their other sister, Damika Withers, who lived nearby, to check in on her.

Turnage felt better by the time Withers arrived, but her sister suggested she get checked out at the hospital. As a compromise, Turnage agreed to see a doctor at a nearby urgent care facility. 

She was in the examination room when a doctor informed them that Washington had called to alert them that she may have had a stroke. An ambulance had already arrived to take her to the hospital. 

At the hospital, doctors confirmed Washington’s suspicions. Turnage had suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini-stroke. A TIA is more accurately characterized as a “warning stroke” because it’s often a warning of a major one. As with most strokes, a clot causes a TIA by temporarily blocking blood flow to the brain.   

Although she had high blood pressure and was obese, Turnage thought she was too young to have a stroke.

As she absorbed the news, she thought of her grandmother, who had died of a massive stroke at 63. Other relatives had struggled with health issues, but she didn’t know much about her family history. 

“In my family culture, the children stay where they’re supposed to be and that was not around the adults,” Turnage said. “We didn’t have those adult conversations.”

After she was released from the hospital, Turnage vowed to change her life — exercising, monitoring her calorie intake, avoiding red meat and watching her salt intake. Ultimately, she lost about 60 pounds.

“I felt like this was my chance to make a difference,” she said. “You’re a strong Black woman who needs to be here for others that look like you.”

Introduced to the American Heart Association at the hospital, she agreed to share her story as one of the organization’s Woman of Impact nominees. 

During the eight-week campaign, she hosted aerobics and cycling classes and held public events to raise awareness about heart disease, especially encouraging Black people to know their numbers and seek medical care.

Managing stress is also crucial, she said, noting that the experience has taught her to take time for herself. When she can’t babysit, provide transportation or work overtime, she no longer explains herself.

While learning to say no hasn’t always been easy, “I'm fiercer now than I was before my stroke,” she said. “I’m making me a priority.”

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