It Can Happen to Anyone at Anytime

May 10th, 11th, and 12th of 2011 are dates that are forever seared into my memory. These are the dates “the event” and its aftermath occurred. I had just moved back to my hometown of Manhattan, NY six months prior and was settling into a new chapter of my life; one based back on the East Coast. I had lived in Los Angeles for the previous ten years and was ecstatic about living back in what I refer to as “the real world”. LA was just not my town.

I had found a wonderful jazz class that replaced the one I’d grown accustomed to in LA and had longed for when I first relocated back to the Big Apple. I was delighted that my newfound class was as challenging and exhilarating as my LA class had been. Dance has always been a huge part of my life. I took my first ballet class at age 4 after falling in love with dance recitals that I was taken to as a toddler by my mother. I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a kid, and I had studied ballet at the prestigious School of American Ballet in NYC.

I have been proficient in several different dance styles since I was a child: ballet, flamenco, jazz and modern. After a long absence from dance classes due to my supermodel career that began at age 13, I was thrilled to finally incorporate dance back into my life. Tuesday night jazz class was a must.

The night of Tuesday May 10th, 2011 was the date when I had, unbeknownst to me, an injury to my neck during jazz class. I felt a little sore after class, all over my body not just my neck, but this is normal for a dancer. So I didn’t think anything of it and proceeded home. I had an uneventful night’s sleep, woke up the next day and went to an audition for a play in midtown at Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

As I was entering the building that morning of May 11th, 2011, I started to have a strange headache, and as I walked a few yards into the lobby and up the stairs I was gripped by the worst headache I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was so bad that it forced me to sit down on the heavily trafficked lobby staircase and close my eyes and drop my head forward into my hands. I was in pain and couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. Even worse, my vision was going in and out and I thought to myself this must be a migraine. I’ve never had one but I assumed that was what was happening. What else could it be? I had just eaten a full breakfast 30 minutes before, so I knew I wasn’t experiencing low blood sugar. On top of the terrifying fact of my vision coming and going, I was seeing rainbow colors in front of me instead of the staircase and the people that were actually there. I started to get nervous, too much time had passed and these odd symptoms weren’t changing. I couldn’t see in front of me!

Soon enough a woman asked me in a very kind voice if I was OK and if I needed help. God bless this woman. I couldn’t see her but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was truly extending a helping hand. She informed me that she was also an actress on her way to an audition at AEA. I gratefully let her guide me out of the building – I still could not see anything – and we sat in a coffee shop next door. Some time went by, and my symptoms didn’t change. This dear woman took my hands and suggested we pray. I was relieved since that felt like just the right thing to do. I honestly believe to this day that my visual field deficit landed to the left of my visual field and not to the center or all around which would have been a game changer, because of our prayers. We sat a few minutes more and she suggested that I call someone and perhaps call an ambulance as well. I wish I had called an ambulance but I had no concept that I was having a stroke at that time. I honestly thought this “weird headache” would be going away in no time. She helped me call my dad since I still couldn’t see properly, and he came right away to pick me up.

Unfortunately, it didn’t for one moment occur to my dad either that I was having a stroke. So he took me to his place and gave me an aspirin and I fell asleep on his couch. Fortunately I could see again, but there was still a visual field deficit to the left of my visual field. I woke up the next morning of May 12th, 2011 and told my dad that something was wrong. I still had this visual field deficit and I was scared since it was now 24 hours after the incident began. We immediately went to the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital where they took a CAT scan and an MRI. My dad had called my mom who was now with us in the hospital awaiting the results. No less than 5 doctors walked into the room with grim looks on their faces, and the head of the neurological department, Dr. Carolyn Brockington, informed me that I had had a stroke; that in fact when I threw my head around a la Beyonce in jazz class 36 hours prior, that is what caused my left vertebral artery to dissect the following morning.

Oh my god. My eyes fell to the floor where I spotted my hairband that must have fallen out of my hair earlier and I felt my world was crashing down before me. My mother let out a cry and everyone just stood there staring at me. I was still in the hospital gown from the MRI and I felt so truly hopeless.

I stayed in the hospital from that day until May 18th, 2011 – 6 days total.

I remember asking God what he was trying to tell me. I knew there was more to this than just the information that Dr. Brockington and her team had relayed to me, such as: “you were struck by lightning” “there’s a one in a million chance that this could happen” “you had bad luck” etc. I did a lot of soul-searching in the hospital and at home afterwards. I was so grateful that I could continue my career as a model and an actress. After all, no one could tell that anything had happened to me. There was no cognitive or muscular fallout for me, only a partial visual filed deficit since the part of my brain that was affected was the visual field. By the grace of God it wasn’t worse.

I was depressed for a while needless to say, but I went back to work and no one was the wiser. My left vertebral artery healed after a few months which was great news. After the initial period of taking different medications, I now only take a baby aspirin daily for life. I’m just as I was before, and the partial visual field deficit is slowly healing. The brain is the slowest organ to heal but it does heal. Life goes on.

I am so happy to be helping the AHA / ASA by spreading the word that this can happen to anyone at any time, no matter what age or state of health one is in, and by educating people about how to recognize when a stroke is occurring and the importance of getting a person experiencing one to an emergency room immediately.

Luckily there is a drug that can diminish the effects of a stroke if you get yourself to the hospital within three hours after having a stroke.

Claudia MasonComment