Real Woman 2021 Yesenia Berbiar

Woman's recovery after stroke, heart surgery fosters deep gratitude for hard-won health.

Yesenia Berbiar’s stroke led to the discovery of an undiagnosed heart condition she had since birth. It also explained lingering health problems and gave her a new appreciation for life.

Yesenia Berbiar always pursued a healthy lifestyle to combat her family history of heart disease. But in January 2020, six weeks after a hysterectomy, she started having worrisome symptoms once she was back at home.

She became foggy-headed, couldn’t smile and had trouble raising her eyebrows. What scared her the most was the confusion she felt and the inability to answer when asked for her birth date — all common symptoms of a stroke.

Alone — her husband was at work — she resisted calling 911, in part because she thought her symptoms were due to a new medication.

In hindsight, the delay was a mistake — one that she doesn’t want other women to make.

“Don’t hesitate — just call,” she said. “Your life can change in the blink of an eye.”

Phone calls with  her husband and kids persuaded her to get medical attention.

“It’s in our genes to feel as if we’re invincible,” said Berbiar, 49, an administrative assistant who lives in Santa Clarita, Calif.. “We think we’re superwomen and have to handle everything. As women, we’re always doing for others, and it’s hard to ask for help.”

Once in the hospital, days passed as specialists tried to figure out what had caused the stroke. Finally, they determined she had a hole in her heart, known as a patent foramen ovale.

Doctors told her she had the PFO since birth. The diagnosis was scary, she said. Making it worse was the timing — early in 2020 — because the COVID-19 pandemic meant delays in her follow-up care.

While waiting for surgery to repair the condition, she was determined to stay positive.

“Failure or giving up is not an option for me,” she said. “Every day it’s a choice. You have to remember you’re strong. You can do this.”

In May 2020, Yesenia had surgery to correct the PFO and, she said, the positive effects were evident almost immediately. One was better sleep because her breathing was no longer impaired by the condition. Problems caused by her stroke have improved with therapy, including the limited use of her left side and a temporary inability to speak.

Yesenia credits the support of her family, who “never gave up on me,” even when she was unsure she could learn to speak again. Now, she’ll often repeat “mom” — a common first word she was taught when recovering from the stroke — because of her gratitude to be able to talk.

“One of the conversations I had with God was, ‘If you want me to continue helping people, give me my speech back,’” she said.

Yesenia said her medical situation made her appreciate her health. That motivates her to share her experience with other women at risk of heart problems.

“For me, every moment is a blessing,” she said. “I love my heart. I’m constantly touching it and talking to it, thanking it for never letting me down even though it took so long to get diagnosed. It’s something I’ll never take for granted again.”