Marissa Fattore had a stroke at her college graduation ceremony. She wants women to know that stroke can happen at any age and urges them to know the signs, symptoms and risks so they can act fast.
Marissa Fattore felt a little off the morning of her college graduation. She had a sharp headache and a fuzzy feeling in her head but chalked it up to nerves. After taking pictures with family and friends, the 21-year-old took her place near the front of the auditorium for the ceremony.
Marissa walked across the stage, received her diploma and an honors medal, then sat back down. A minute later, she collapsed in her seat, fell to the floor and had what appeared to be a seizure. The ceremony stopped as the paramedics on scene took care of Marissa before rushing her to the hospital where she had additional seizures.
Tests and an MRI showed Marissa had a clot in her brain and had suffered a rare type of stroke. She had a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST, where a clot forms in the brain’s venous sinuses. Marissa's doctors believe that her being on estrogen birth control may have contributed to her having this type of stroke. They gave her a clot-busting medicine along with anti-seizure drugs. The former collegiate swimmer spent 10 days in the hospital before going to in-patient rehab for about a month.
The stroke left Marissa unable to do “everyday things like walking, talking or even taking a shower on my own,” she said. She attended physical, speech and occupational therapy to regain her ability to walk properly and to improve her speech and comprehension.
She also was struggling to adapt to the recovery environment on the brain injury floor of the rehabilitation center.
“In physical therapy I looked around me, and I saw a lot of older people that I had trouble relating with, and I kind of asked myself, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why did this happen to me?’” she said. “I had a tough time understanding that at just 21 years old.”
The support of her family, friends and medical team kept Marissa motivated. After being released from in-patient rehab she was living back at her childhood home in Pennsylvania while going to outpatient therapy three times a week for a year. She also had to wait to drive for six months because of her seizures. It was a frustrating and scary time since she had pictured a different future post-graduation.
“It's the first time you're really gaining that independence to be on your own. You're looking forward to starting a real career and just getting out there in the world,” she said. “I felt that was sort of stripped from me when I had my stroke.”
At Marissa’s one-year, follow-up visit with her neurologist, she was cleared to stop taking her anti-clotting medication. The doctor also gave her the OK to move to her “happy place” of Florida, where she had previously attended college and swam competitively on a university team. Although her parents were conflicted, they supported their daughter’s need to reclaim her life.
The move also allowed Marissa to keep quiet about her stroke.
“I didn't want other people to look at me as though I had a disability or a disadvantage. I knew what I was capable of, and I didn't want to be looked at differently than anybody else,” she said.
In Florida, she began interning in public relations and then picked up a part-time job working the front desk at a fitness studio, a good match for Marissa who had been an athlete for the majority of her life. Eventually she got a marketing job in their corporate office, which allowed her the opportunity to work with their partners at the American Heart Association.
As she listened to others sharing their survivor stories and making an impact, Marissa, now 32, was inspired to open up about her stroke that occurred in May 2013.
“I’m standing here today so incredibly grateful to be alive and breathing. I needed to do more. I needed to help more people and more unlikely faces of stroke,” she said.
“My message to women is that stroke can happen to anyone, anywhere. Be vigilant. Educate yourself on the signs, symptoms and risks associated with stroke and be sure to act fast.”
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