Young stroke victims share stories of survival

When James Akers, Jr. woke up one morning, he knew something wasn't right.

"I woke up in the middle of a full blown stroke.  I didn't know it was a stroke," he said.  "All I know is that I felt incredibly drunk and dizzy.  I couldn't walk.  I literally got out of bed and could not balance myself and walk."

Akers said he wasn't diagnosed as having a stroke until a friend urged him to get a MRI.

"The doctor said, 'We have a problem.  You've had two big strokes this morning and at least ten previous strokes," he said.

Akers' diagnosis came when he was 35 years old.  That was a little over two years ago.

And what Akers had to deal with is, increasingly, not unusual.

"I've treated patients who have had strokes in their early 20s," said Erika Sliger, a physical therapist with Carolinas Rehabilitation-Mount Holly.

Sliger had headed a support group for stroke survivors for years at the facility.  But two years ago, Sliger had a stroke herself.

"Everything looked like it was disjointed and bizzare," she said. "Nothing looked right."

The type of stroke that Akers and Sliger suffered from was vertebral artery dissection, where clots formed as a result of a tear in the arteries.  The body forms clots to help deal with the tear, but those clots can travel to the brain, causing a stroke.

Stroke symptoms include facial drooping, slurred speech, and numbness.

In a study done by JAMA Neurology, between 2003 and 2012, there was a 41.5% increase in men 35-44 who suffered from a stroke and a 30% increase in women within the same age range in the United States.  Statistics show that a quarter of those who have had a stroke are under the age of 55.

North and South Carolina are in what is known as the "stroke belt", which consists of a number of states, mainly in the South, where people are more prone to having strokes.

The rise has been attributed to a number of factors.  For women, hormonal birth control has been known to cause blood clots, which lead to strokes.  For both men and women, studies have shown increasing incidences of hypertension, cholesterol issues, diabetes and obesity are also risk factors for strokes.

Both Akers and Sliger said their journeys to get back to life before their strokes is still ongoing.

"They had given me a 15% survival rate," said Akers, who said he still sufferes from aphasia, which is a condition where someone has issues with comprehending or expressing speech.

"I was able to get back to work in three months," said Sliger.  "So, I was lucky in that fact because there are a lot of people who don't ever work again."