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Stroke Survivor Turns Beauty Queen

One Woman's Story

Picture of Cynthia Stephens, Mrs. New Jersey 2002   

Cynthia Ann Stephans suffered a near-fatal stroke when she was 5 months pregnant.
Read about her amazing story of survival.

Cynthia Ann Stephens is remarkable for not only did she survive a near-fatal stroke two years ago, she also overcame incredible odds, entered into a state beauty pageant and won the title! Meet Mrs. New Jersey 2002.

Cynthia, who was 5 months pregnant and 36–years–old at the time, was casually talking on the phone with someone at her children's school, telling the person that her two daughters would be coming in a little late that day when suddenly her right side became paralyzed and she lost her ability to speak. Cynthia began crawling on her hands and knees motioning to her older daughter for help. Ten-year-old Chelsea knew her mom was in serious trouble and so, she called 9-1-1 right away. Her 5-year-old was too young to understand her mother's condition.

When she arrived at the hospital, she was completely paralyzed on the right side of her body and she could not talk. Her husband described her as being “in a vegetative state” and the doctors discussed nursing home placement. She remained in the hospital for five days and was then transferred to another facility for rehabilitation.

"I had to learn how to change a baby diaper and bath a baby using only one hand. I had to practice carrying a life-like baby doll". Cynthia was determined to regain function and soon, she was doing exercises to strengthen her hand and arms. She progressed to walking just three days after being discharged home and by the seventh day, she had regained her speech.

"I am blessed. My baby is fine. I have a healthy son. I can once again care for my family. I just wanted to get better quickly so that I could take care of my baby and the rest of my family. My husband helped out a lot as did other family members. I feel one hundred percent better, under the circumstances," says Cynthia who continues to suffer some residual weakness in her right hand and arm and has minor difficulties with her speech.

Cynthia thought she was in good health. She had always taken good care of herself however, prior to her getting pregnant, she had sought an evaluation from her doctor for some frightening symptoms she had been having whereby where her right arm would become numb for a short period of time or she would experience "pins and needles". Sometimes she would have vision changes. Sometimes she could not speak. But these symptoms would only last a short time before everything would return to normal. She now knows that what she had been experiencing were "TIAs" - short for Transient Ischemic Attacks - whereby certain brain cells were being deprived of oxygen. TIAs often serve as warning signs for an impending stroke. When she complained to her doctor, he did not order testing and she feared he did not believe her. She was forced to change doctors to get the care she needed. Her new doctor listened to her and said that, even though she did not fall into any risk category, he would order testing. When all the tests came back negative, she received an "OK" from her doctor to get pregnant as he could find nothing wrong.

While stroke is uncommon in pregnancy, it does happen - about one percent of the time, according to Dr. Brad Tinkelman, a neurologist from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. Mrs. Stephans did have high blood pressure during the pregnancy and this is a risk factor for stroke. African American women suffer a much higher rate of stroke than the general population, though it is not known why. Also, the Black Infant Mortality Study (BIMS) reported significantly higher mortality rates for black infants and their mothers, regardless of socio-economic factors.

Cynthia wants everyone to learn the warning signs of stroke during the month of May -- Stroke Awareness Month.

If you experience any symptoms, call 9-1-1 and seek immediate help.

Many emergency rooms do not diagnose stroke properly or have the necessary emergency medicine on-hand for quick administration once a thrombotic stroke is diagnosed, so knowing which medical facility in your area is best at treating stroke – also called “Brain Attack” – in an emergency is important. If treatment is received during the first three hours following a stroke, it could mean the difference between full recovery and major disability or death.

Although Cynthia arrived in the emergency room within a short time after onset of stroke symptoms, she was not eligible to receive clot-buster medication due to unknown dangers to the developing fetus. According to WHF Medical Director Steven A. Samuel, MD, FACC, of Trenton Cardiology Consultants “There is absolutely no literature regarding use of thrombolytics for stroke in pregnancy... and probably none for myocardial infarction (heart attack) either. These events are so uncommon that it would be very tough to do such a study, even if the study were considered ethical.”

Cynthia Ann Stephans suffered an illness that caused her life to take an unusual turn. As Mrs. New Jersey, she is making it her mission to raise awareness about stroke in women and encourage women to take care of their heart health. Here is her wellness message for all women:

  1. Take steps to reduce stress levels daily. I do this by exercising, lifting weights and walking at least three miles a day. I also take an afternoon nap when my baby is napping. Exercise is good for total fitness –– mental, physical and spiritual health;
  2. Don't think about the negative. I never think of myself as being a disabled mom. The fact is I am now able to speak well, walk, change my baby's diapers and take good care of my family. I look upon my experience as a new beginning... a chance to make a fresh start.
  3. Trust in God. Pray to your Higher Being and know that everything will be all right. I firmly believe that no matter what you have to go through in life, there is always a solution and God is there to help.

"Good health is waiting for you. With hard work, determination, attitude and personal style you too can regain your health. Who knows... you may even become a beauty queen –– in spite of life's challenges."

                – Cynthia Ann Stephans, Mrs. New Jersey 2002

Editor's note: Cynthia reported that her early neurologic complaints received no attention from her primary care physician and that she felt compelled to change doctors. Her new doctor listened, believed her and ordered appropriate tests, however, the tests were all negative, she said; hence, it is very difficult to diagnose and prevent an impending stroke with the current technology available. More research is needed in this area of prevention.

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