- Christy Kirk had a stroke at 27. Doctors initially told her she was having a panic attack.
- Doctors are more likely to misdiagnose strokes in women and people under 45.
- Kirk has since made a full recovery. She has run 17 marathons since she had a stroke.
In 2003, Christy Kirk had a stroke at 27 — and doctors initially thought she was having a panic attack.
Kirk, a Boston-based dentist and marathon runner, was training for her first Boston Marathon at the time. She was in good health, going on runs every day after spending 5 to 8 hours in dentistry school.
One day after coming home from a training run, Kirk began feeling “a little off,” and thought she might have run too hard. A few minutes later, while sitting on her couch, the entire right side of her body went numb.
Kirk was experiencing a stroke, which happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen, caused by a blood clot that went through a small hole in her heart called an atrial septal defect.
She said her eyes locked to one side, and she could not speak without slurring her words.
“I tried to use my phone to call my husband, but I realized, when I had to leave him a voicemail, I couldn’t even form words,” she said. “That’s when I massively panicked.”
Strokes are a leading cause of death and disability in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and timely treatment is essential for preventing serious side effects. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for women, and in the US, 1 in 5 women between the ages of 55 and 75 will have a stroke.
But strokes are often misdiagnosed in young women like Kirk. People under 45 and women are disproportionately more likely to be misdiagnosed in the week prior to sustaining a debilitating stroke, according to Johns Hopkins.
Doctors initially diagnosed her stroke as a panic attack
After attempting to call her husband, Kirk went to her neighbor and asked them to take her to the hospital.
In the emergency room, Kirk said she still could not speak without stuttering, but her vitals were normal and she regained the ability to move her eyes. The ER doctor diagnosed Kirk with a panic attack and told her she “seemed fine.” He sent her home with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication.
“I knew that I wasn’t a person who panicked, I’d never panicked in my life and everything was going very well for me at that time,” she said. “I called a really close friend. She came over and stayed with me because I was afraid, I thought I might die at home alone.”
Part of what led to Kirk’s misdiagnosis was that the blood clot in her brain caused by the stroke was so small that it did not appear in an initial CT scan. Kirk followed up with another doctor to get an MRI exam a few days later, which provided a better picture of her brain to identify the issue.
Kirk made a full recovery
Doctors treated Kirk with a minimally-invasive procedure that placed a mesh-like tool called a septal occluder to close the hole in her heart. Now 47, Kirk has run 17 marathons and a couple triathlons since the stroke, and has had four kids.
Kirk said the fact she was young and “super healthy and fit” might have contributed to the misdiagnosis. “I didn’t look like a person who would have a medical problem at all,” she added. But she still feels frustrated that the ER doctor did not perform more tests when she knew something more serious than a panic attack had happened to her.
“It’s an indescribable feeling when your body won’t behave and, no matter what your brain tells it to do, it’s malfunctioning and you can’t control it,” she said. “I just feel really lucky and really happy that I’ve been able to stay healthy all these years.”
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