The Subtle Stroke Warning Sign My Family Missed

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Do you know all the symptoms of a stroke? I thought I did—until my dad had a devastating stroke and we missed an early warning sign.

Fourth of July weekend, two months before his massive stroke, my father complained about his vision being funny in one eye. “It looks like a film negative,” he said.

A couple of days later, my parents visited his eye doctor, who assured him he had surprisingly good vision for a 75-year-old with diabetes, and sent him on his way.

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What that specialist didn’t say: A sudden change in vision, particularly in only one eye, can signal a lack of bloodflow to the eye, suggesting a pre-stroke, or Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), which is often a sign of an impending stroke. Other people have described the vision change that my father compared to photography, a lifelong hobby of his, as suddenly seeing through a window shade.

“It’s difficult to know all the symptoms of stroke, because there are at least 30 possible symptoms and they’re not all specific to stroke,” says Koto Ishida, MD, Director of the Comprehensive Stroke Care Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Alarmingly, many of us don’t even know the classic signs of a stroke: one recent study found that most people under 45 would not rush to the ER if they had telltale symptoms such as limb weakness and slurred speech.

But strokes can happen at any age. And they’re on the rise in younger adults: The rate of women 35 to 40 being hospitalized for clot-related, or ischemic stroke (by far the most common kind), shot up by 30 percent between 1995 and 2008; experts blame rising rates of health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

RELATED: The Early Signs of Stroke You Need to Know—Even If You’re Young

If it’s a stroke, there’s zero time to waste. You need to get to the ER within four and a half hours of an ischemic stroke to get the emergency clot-busting drug called tPA that can greatly improve your odds of a good recovery. And if it’s a hemorrhagic stroke—caused by bleeding in the brain—you may need surgery, stat.

“For every minute that goes by, two million brain cells are irreversibly dead,” warns Dr. Ishida. “We’re trying to save your remaining brain.”

Interestingly, the one symptom you won’t have with an ischemic stroke is pain—and that’s too bad, say experts like Dr. Ishida: “Pain is the best motivator to get someone to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night.”