Young People at Risk for Stroke

Stroke is often considered a medical problem that affects only the elderly, but as Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson explains, there is a type of stroke that effects young people. It's called PFO.

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PFO is short-hand for Patent Foramen Ovale, a congenital heart defect which can result in stroke for the very young. It starts as a small hole between the two chambers of the heart that everyone has before birth.

"After birth in almost everyone that little hole closes off and we have our heart circulation as we have it as an adult. But in a certain percentage of the population that little hole doesn't completely close and blood can kind of swoosh between the two chambers causing turbulence and causing little clots to form that then get turned loose into the circulation to go find its way to the brain."

That was Jan Flewelling, the stroke outreach program coordinator at Methodist Hospital. She says young people don't think of stroke as a possible ailment, so they often ignore the symptoms or chalk it up to something other than stroke. That's exactly what happened to Russell Jones. He says he was preparing to walk his dogs one morning and just dropped to the floor. His wife found him lying there with no motor skills and unable to speak.

"So they took me to the hospital and one of the first things we noticed when we got there, they asked me my name, and I couldn't say my name. I knew I was in a hospital, but I couldn't, and I knew which one because they told me but I could not say it. I could not say my birthday. At that point my family started getting a little bit upset because they didn't know what was going on and I didn't either."

What was going on was a classic case of PFO, but Jones didn't recognize it as a stroke because he considered himself too young and healthy to have a stroke. When he first fell down, he says he just wanted to go back to bed and figured he'd be okay after a little while. Flewelling says that's exactly the behavior she's trying to combat by educating both the medical and lay communities about the different kinds of strokes and what people should look for.

"Two things are fairly closely linked to identifying stroke. One is that something suddenly and new has happened. Something that is unexpected, it's new and it can't be explained by one's usual state of health. And it's frequently on one side of the body or the other."

Flewelling says if someone displays these symptoms they should immediately call 9-1-1 and tell the dispatcher they think they may have stroke. Jones is still undergoing physical and speech therapy from the stroke he had in November. It's estimated that as much as 20 percent of the population has PFO, although less than one percent of those people develop stroke. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...