It was Christmas Eve, and I was visiting my parents in Kentucky, when my mom noticed that my eyes looked “funny.” I had had a headache for several days leading up to the trip, and she could tell something was off.
By the time the holiday was over, the pain had become intense—an all-over ache that made it difficult for me to even hold my head up—and I felt a heaviness in my chest, as though a football player was standing on top of me.
As a scientist, my mind reeled with the possibilities of what could be wrong. The night before New Year’s Eve, I returned home to Chicago and went to the ER.
The staff working the holiday shift found my blood pressure was elevated, but chalked it up to “holiday stress” and sent me home, instructing me to touch base with my doctor in a few days.
The next 48 hours were agony. I was unable to sleep. The heaviness in my chest never let up. And my headache continued to make it impossible to focus, or even stay upright.
So I went back to the ER. Again, I was told I had elevated blood pressure. This time the staff conducted an array of tests—and the doctor determined that I had a stroke.
I was blown away.
It was two weeks after my 41st birthday. I had been a college athlete; I ran track. Through my 20s and my early 30s, I’d been a certified personal trainer. I had never been sick in my life, and I maintained what I believed to be a healthy lifestyle. And a doctor was showing me an X-ray of my brain and pointing to a dark spot where a blood vessel had burst. It was surreal.
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My stroke was a direct result of undiagnosed hypertension. I was walking around with high blood pressure and didn’t know it. As it turns out, that’s surprisingly common. They call hypertension the “silent killer” because it’s possible to have dangerously high blood pressure and no symptoms. For a lot of women, like me, a stroke or heart attack is actually the first symptom.
I ate healthy, and exercised regularly—but I had a family history of hypertension. Both my mom and dad had high blood pressure. (In the years after my stroke, they both died of congestive heart failure.)
The damage I suffered in my brain led to weakness on my left side, particularly in my arm and leg. I had four weeks of inpatient physical therapy, and another month of outpatient therapy. I also saw a speech therapist for a month. While I could speak, I had a difficult time stringing together sentences. I knew what I wanted to say, but had trouble phrasing.
There were emotional effects too. When you go through a near-death experience—you feel terrified for quite some time. For months, every twinge, every small change in your body makes you worry. My Type A personality took a backseat at work as I tried to control my stress level.
All in all, my recovery took about a year. I know that I was extremely lucky to survive. Had I not returned to the ER, I wouldn’t be alive today.
It’s now been 13 years. These days, in addition to eating healthy and working out, I am constantly tuned in to my blood pressure. I’m on medication and, per my doctor’s recommendation, I use a home blood pressure monitor to take readings at least three times a week. The Omron device I use is FDA-cleared for clinical accuracy; and it syncs with my phone and automatically logs and charts my readings, which I can share with my doctor. I carry it with me wherever I go.
The ability to know my blood pressure at any point in time has made me feel empowered. It’s like moving from the dark into the light.
I don’t want others to go through what I did. So, in addition to my full-time job, I am also a trained advocate for women’s heart health through an organization called WomenHeart. There are nearly 800 advocates like me across the country. We’ve all been through a one-week training at the Mayo Clinic on heart conditions, diagnosis, treatments, public speaking, and advocacy. After we leave the Mayo Clinic we go back to our communities and we raise awareness.
There are a few things I hope people take away when I share my personal story. The first is that it can happen to anyone: Heart disease, stroke, and heart attack don’t discriminate by age or gender—and they can affect even those who have a seemingly healthy lifestyle.
The second is that we must advocate aggressively for ourselves and our health, especially as women. Multiple studies show that women with symptoms of cardiac events are far more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the ER, or to get delayed care, than men.
There is no question in my mind that if I were a man, no doctor would have told me that my symptoms were due to “holiday stress” and sent me home. It’s disappointing, but not shocking, that men are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, but women still make up the majority of its fatalities. My determination to return to the hospital for get better care saved my life.
Finally, I want to spread the word that it is critically important—and astonishingly easy with modern technology—to know and monitor your blood pressure. When was the last time you took yours? Knowing your numbers is the first step toward making changes that could save your life.
I wish I had known all those things. But since I have been given a second chance, I have made it my mission to make sure others do.
This article originally appeared on Health.com