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Eighteen-year-old college athlete Kylie Lough wasn’t aware young, healthy people could have a stroke until she began to experience symptoms on a trip with her rowing team. Image Taken for American Heart Association
  • Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, yet only about half of women are aware of this reality.
  • Division one rowing athlete Kylie Lough shares her story of having a stroke at 18 years old.
  • Lifestyle choices can have a positive impact on heart health.

The July before Kylie Lough started Boston University, she went on a 5-week trip in New Zealand with her soon-to-be college rowing team. A few weeks in, the 18-year-old had a stroke in her hotel room.

She was skimming Instagram on her phone when suddenly everything went black, and she felt an intense spinning sensation.

“When I came out of the spinning and blackness, I used what little energy I had left in my limbs (they were becoming very weak and partially paralyzed) to run and open the hotel room door. I screamed at the top of my lungs for help, but it was coming out slurred,” Lough told Healthline.

Her teammates ran out of their rooms and got their coach.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Lough.

Because it was winter in New Zealand, a severe snowstorm was underway. The mountain village the team stayed at was shut down. Still, Lough’s coach drove her a few miles down the road to an urgent care facility, where he was instructed to take her to the hospital.

However, due to the weather conditions, she could not be transported by ambulance or helicopter, so her coach drove her in the team van. While a drive to the hospital would typically take two hours, it took them five.

The entire ride, Lough had to keep the van door open because she was vomiting.

“My coach had to negotiate with the emergency workers who were closing down the roads to get me to the hospital,” said Lough. “I was terrified, my head was spinning, I was laying down unable to move, and the only emotion I had was terror because I thought I wasn’t going to make it out of that van.”

Although Lough was experiencing typical stroke symptoms, such as speech difficulty, trouble seeing, and numbness in her limbs, when she arrived at the hospital, stroke wasn’t the first condition doctors guessed.

“[I] was an in-shape 18-year-old with no past medical history — they didn’t really know what was happening,” said Lough. “They went to performance-enhancing drugs, alcohol poisoning, pregnancy — it just didn’t add up to them that I could have had a stroke because I was not a typical stroke patient.”

However, about 10% to 15% of all strokes occur in adults ages 50 or under, according to previous research.

“We need to recognize that everyone is at risk for both heart attacks and stroke. Just because you’re young and healthy doesn’t mean you have a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Dr. Louise D. McCullough, AHA Go Red for Women volunteer, told Healthline. “Sadly, heart disease and stroke don’t discriminate, and it’s up to each of us to know the signs and symptoms and know our own bodies so we can identify when something feels off.”

A few days after Lough arrived at the hospital, she was no longer vomiting and able to withstand an MRI. Doctors determined that she experienced a stroke due to patent foramen ovale (PFO), a hole in the upper chambers of the heart that usually closes shortly after birth.

Dr. Salman Azhar, director of the stroke program at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital, said PFO occurs in about 20% of people.

While PFO is one of the main causes of stroke in young people, the presence of PFO alone doesn’t increase the risk of stroke.

“You have to have a clot sitting somewhere first and foremost before the PFO comes into play,” Azhar told Healthline.

For instance, when a clot develops in a vein, in 80% of people, the lungs act as a filter.

“Because blood flows from the veins to the right heart, to the lungs, where that clot gets blocked, and then the left heart never sees it, and if the left heart never sees it, the brain never sees it,” said Azhar. “But if you have a PFO, instead of the clot going up the lungs, it can go from the right heart to the left heart and up to the brain.”

Clots can develop in the legs as people age or when on long flights or car rides when they are not moving for long periods of time.

In addition to PFO, other reasons for stroke in young people include having a genetic or acquired clotting disorder, problems with a heart valve, or experiencing a tear in a blood vessel where a clot can form and reach the brain.

“Tears can happen spontaneously or sometimes when working out, falling while skiing, or being in a car crash,” said Azhar. “The key symptom when a tear happens is you get severe neck pain. It doesn’t take a lot to tear a vessel, though it’s not common.”

Lough’s mom flew to New Zealand and took her home to Boston so she could undergo surgery to repair the PFO on November 9, 2022.

Lough decided to start college as planned in September. Her parents felt comfortable with her decision since Boston University is only 45 minutes from their home.

During her first semester, she balanced school, homework, and 10 hours a week of occupational, physical, and speech therapy at a rehabilitation center in Boston. Due to her recovery, she had to sit out of the fall season of rowing.

“[I] could barely do basic movements,” said Lough.

However, she pushed herself through recovery, and in February of 2023, she began training with light exercise and slowly progressed to more intense workouts.

“The whole [fall] season was me trying to get through the hard workouts without bad feelings happening in my body,” said Lough. “But by the end of the 2023 spring season, my boat got third place, and our overall team got second place at the national championship, so it took a lot of strides to get there. I’m back to rowing now fully.”

Today, she feels almost completely recovered. The right side of her body is still shaky and weak, including her right hand, so she had to learn how to write with her left hand.

“I take every day after the stroke as a blessing and a gift, and if a workout didn’t go well or I got a bad grade on an exam, I don’t dwell on [it]. I say it’s okay and pick up the next day where I left off,” Lough said.

She also doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I’m really happy to be alive, and positivity is my main outlook,” she said.

Lough teamed up with the AHA’s Go Red for Women movement to help educate women on their risk of heart disease and stroke. She is sharing her story to spread awareness that stroke can afflict younger people.

After telling her friends about her stroke, she was surprised that many weren’t aware it could affect people their age and that they didn’t realize how serious a stroke could be.

“[But] I admit that even before I had my stroke, I was in the same clueless boat,” said Lough. “For my generation, [I hope to focus on] education and making sure everyone is aware so if someone is experiencing symptoms, they could possibly save someone’s life.”

She hopes her story will spread awareness throughout the medical field, too. While she is thankful that doctors saved her life, she said their hesitation to consider stroke right away proves that more awareness is needed.

“We know that when women do seek care, they are less recognized, often because they may present with less classic or stereotypical symptoms, and instead come in complaining of non-localized, more subtle symptoms like nausea, headache, or confusion,” said McCullough.

While both men and women could experience classic symptoms like weakness and trouble speaking, McCullough added that “we have to have a high level of suspicion with women to make sure they get the care they need.”

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or ruptures.

“When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood, and therefore, oxygen, it needs, which leads to brain cells dying,” said McCullough.

As the number 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States, McCullough said that the same risk factors that drive cardiovascular disease also drive cerebrovascular disease, like stroke.

“Things like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, are all important risk factors,” she said. “If you’re treating those for prevention of heart disease, you’re also treating for prevention of stroke.”

Watching salt intake and eating a healthy, balanced diet with fiber can help.

“Our microbiome can change dramatically based on what we eat. We’re learning more and more about how diet is even more important when it comes to our heart health,” said McCullough.