Latarsha Jones

Florida stroke survivor learns to make her health a priority.

Latarsha Jones blamed her weeks-long headache on overwhelming grief and stress from her grandmother’s death. Her head hurt so much, she’d have to hold onto it any time she coughed or sneezed.

“I just cried so much, I thought that’s what caused it,” she said.

It had been an emotional year and in the final two months of her grandmother’s life, Jones drove seven hours from Atlanta, Georgia to her grandmother’s home in Florida each weekend, staying by her bedside at the hospital.

During the week, she logged long hours as an assistant principal, arriving by 6:30 a.m. and staying until 5 p.m. She had opened three schools in eight years, hiring a team of teachers, creating policies and building a culture. Three children and a strained marriage also took a toll.

“I was just working all the time and exhausted,” she said.

Her husband urged her to see a doctor. But Jones brushed off the headache, convinced it was due to her intense grief. She took acetaminophen and dimmed the lights in her office and at home.

“My body and my health were the last thing on my radar,” she said.

On April 22, 2013, Jones was processing standardized tests with a colleague when she had a strange sensation.

“It was like in those cartoons, when everything is moving fast while you stay still,” she said.

Her head pounding and a strange pain nagging her left side, Jones retreated to her darkened office, asking her secretary to come sit with her.

“In my mind, I was talking to her, but nothing was coming out,” she said. “I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say.”

As she tried to raise her arms, Jones couldn’t feel her left side and watched as her arm drooped — a common symptom of stroke, along with slurred or impaired speech.

Jones’ colleague called 911. At the hospital, a series of tests showed she had an ischemic stroke.

Jones took medications and spent the next few days in the hospital. Remarkably, her speech recovered after a day. But her physical rehabilitation would take longer, using a cane for the next three months while rebuilding strength on her left side.

About 4 million stroke survivors alive today are women. And among women, non-Hispanic blacks have the highest prevalence of stroke — the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of long-term disability in America.

Looking back, Jones realized she had ignored signs something was wrong for months. She was constantly tired and had passed out in her garage as she was leaving for work.

After briefly returning to work in July 2013, Jones retired.

“I just needed a break,” she said. “I had been hustling for the last several years, just grinding away at work all the time.”

In 2014, Jones moved to Coconut Creek, Florida, seeking a fresh start, swapping an administrator’s role for a reading teacher to reduce her stress.

She also took stock of how her lifestyle may have contributed to her stroke. While she couldn’t change her family history of heart disease and diabetes, Jones’ doctors told her excess weight may have increased her risks. More than 66 percent of women are overweight or obese – about 82 percent are non-Hispanic blacks.

Jones, now 47, revamped her diet, shedding the sodium-laden, fried Southern foods she grew up eating and adding more fruits and vegetables. She also cut out sugary drinks, added exercise into her daily routine, logging 10,000 steps a day — and lost weight.

“I was striving and striving, but not really living,” she said. “Now, I’m focused on taking care of myself.”

Jones has a few lingering effects from her stroke. She occasionally struggles to articulate certain words and continues to build strength on her left side. Even so, she knows she’s fortunate, especially after a cousin was paralyzed and has impaired speech following a stroke.

“As women, we tend to put ourselves on the backburner and ignore it,” Jones said. “Your body is telling you that something is wrong. Don’t take for granted that everything will be fine.”