College athlete Kylie Lough is thriving as a competitive rower after having a stroke at 18. She’s also inspiring other young survivors to never give up on their dreams.
As a competitive rower, Kylie Lough was thrilled to be accepted into a five-week elite international training program in 2022. She was 18 and had recently graduated from high school, so learning from some of the world’s best coaches was a dream come true.
Two weeks into the program while in New Zealand, her life suddenly took a dramatic turn that would test everything she knew about teamwork and determination.
Rowing practice was canceled earlier in the day because of a snowstorm. Kylie was in her hotel room in a middle-of-nowhere town almost 10,000 miles from her Boston home when everything started spinning and she blacked out. Then she couldn’t move her legs or arms. She tried yelling for help, but her speech was slurred. She used all her strength to crawl to the hotel room door.
“I opened it and screamed at the top of my lungs for help because I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “But I knew that something was very, very wrong with me.”
Two other rowers came quickly and sat her upright. At this point, Kylie was almost completely paralyzed.
“I had lost all motion in my arms, my legs, everything,” she said. “I could barely keep my head up, and I kept trying to tell everyone something is wrong. But it was slurred, and no one could understand what I was saying.”
She was driven in the team van to the closest urgent care. It was only five minutes away, but roads were hazardous because of the snowstorm so it took significantly longer. Once at urgent care, the medical staff determined she needed to be treated in a hospital. They contacted the closest one but were told that a helicopter could not transport her because of the storm.
That’s when the head coach of the program made a brave decision to drive Kylie to the hospital. It was about three hours away, but it took twice as long because of the weather and road conditions.
“When I got there, I thought immediately I’d be rushed into emergency and they’d figure out what was going on,” she said. “I thought that they’d hook me up to an IV, all those things that you see in the movies where they are immediately attentive to you.”
But that is not what happened. Kylie was experiencing typical stroke symptoms, but being young and physically fit made hospital staff think something else was wrong. Hospital staff repeatedly asked Kylie if she was pregnant, had taken performance-enhancing drugs or drank alcohol that day. Kylie was doing her best to say no to the questions and communicate with the staff.
“The most important thing with a stroke is time, and I was not given attention in a short enough amount of time,” Kylie said. “It was the worst experience ever because no one was listening to me.”
An MRI showed that Kylie did have a stroke. She recovered in the hospital while her mom traveled from Boston to be with her. Then Kylie and her mom made the long trip back to the United States. She had to have an IV in her arm and be accompanied by a nurse on the flight.
Back home, her care team determined the stroke was likely caused by a patent foramen ovale, a hole in the upper chambers of her heart that a blood clot can pass through to the brain. She underwent a noninvasive catheterization procedure to close the hole. She was also told to stop taking estrogen birth control, which is linked to blood clotting.
Kylie started her freshman year at college one month after her stroke. She juggled homework with going to physical, occupational and speech therapy. She also taught herself new ways to do things, including how to cope with her right side still being weak.
“Now I write all of my notes left-handed, I eat left-handed, I do everything left-handed. I’ve definitely evolved from what happened. Nothing is normal anymore, but I’ve just been in a much better physical state.”
Once she was cleared to row for her college team, she faced doubts from others wondering if she could handle it. She rose to the challenge and helped her school win a second-place national championship overall, coming in third in her event less than a year after the stroke.
“I think that my determination definitely got me there,” she said. “I would not be where I am without working as hard as I did to better myself through therapy, through my mentality, through everything.”
She’s on a mission to use her experience to teach other young people about stroke.
“I think that ignorance is not bliss in this case,” she said. “You need to know the signs because stroke doesn’t care how young you are. It doesn’t care how in shape you are or what your medical history is. It can strike any time and you’ll have no idea until it does.”
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