2023 Real Woman: Jia Wu

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

A series of small, unrecognized strokes — and a blackout while driving — put Army officer Jia Wu on a path to uncovering a rare cerebrovascular disorder.

Jia Wu was a 28-year-old U.S. Army intelligence officer deployed to Afghanistan when she had her first mini-strokes.

For the longest time, she thought the numbness, tingling and shooting pain in her left arm was caused by nerve damage from a torn shoulder muscle.

Her physical therapist agreed.

They were both wrong.

“I had no idea that it would actually be anything remotely close to a stroke,” Wu said.

Wu’s symptoms persisted for about eight months before she returned home to Tacoma, Wash., and visited her primary care doctor. She wrote dates in a logbook of when she had symptoms, such as her left wrist going floppy or pains shooting from her arm into her face.

Eventually, her doctor realized that physical therapy hadn’t resolved Wu’s issues and referred her to other specialists.

Then, one day while driving home from work, Wu’s head suddenly snapped backward.

“That’s when I realized, OK, there is something majorly wrong because there is no reason I should have blacked out and almost hurt somebody on the road or myself, too,” said Wu, who came to quickly.

An MRI of her brain showed she had survived several small strokes and also had Moyamoya disease, a rare, progressive cerebrovascular disorder caused by the blockage or narrowing of the carotid artery in the skull. The name “moyamoya” means “puffs of smoke” in Japanese and describes the look of the tangled tiny vessels formed to compensate for the blockage.

“As an intelligence professional, having cognitive impairments impairs the future of my career,” Wu said.

She needed two cerebral bypass surgeries to remove the skull on either side of her head and re-route scalp arteries onto her brain to redirect blood flow. The Army captain tried to handle her new reality by compartmentalizing the information and soldiering on as best she could.

“I think the military definitely trained me well in terms of managing my emotions because I’ve been taught conflict management and how to operate under stressful conditions,” she said.

Two friends cared for her after her surgeries in 2021, each resulting in a months-long recovery.

“It took me about two to three months each to relearn how to walk, to relearn how to kind of talk and just function again,” Wu said. “I thankfully had my best friends at the time to walk me through it.”

Wu believed telling her story over and over to various doctors was key.

“No matter how exhaustive it was, if I didn’t constantly advocate on behalf of myself, I think I would have experienced a full-blown stroke by the time I actually got my diagnosis,” she said.

Wu encourages others to advocate for themselves and not to take ‘no’ for an answer if something still doesn’t seem right.

“Pick up on tiny indicators because what you’ll always read about are the major symptoms that you’ll likely experience,” she said. “But what you don’t recognize is the tiny indicators that are leading up to a major condition.”

Wu, now 30, approaches life more optimistically. She doesn’t want to miss out on the tiny moments of every day. She is back to running and completed a 12K race barely a year after her first surgery. She is mentally stronger, too, and wants to give others hope.

“I’ve learned with this progressive disease that there is really no guarantee that I’ll live maybe three years, or maybe 30 years,” Wu said. “There is a ticking time bomb inside of me.”

“I’m here to try to tell you that it’s OK to go through what you’re going to go through. You just have to remember that even when you get burned down to ashes that you’re going to rise like a phoenix.”

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