- About 10% of strokes occur in people younger than 50, so young people are prone to misdiagnosis.
- Insider shared the stories of two young stroke victims who doctors assumed had migraines.
- Another young stroke survivor said doctors were convinced she’d done drugs or was hungover.
When Hailey Beiber had a stroke in March at age 25, it forced fans and followers to confront a under-appreciated fact: Strokes can, and do, happen to young people.
Still, doctors (and patients) can overlook the signs, and attribute them to more common culprits like stress, drugs or alcohol use, or migraines. As a result, some patients may never fully recover. “Minutes matter in terms of saving brain tissue and brain function,” Lloyd-Jones said.
Insider covered the stories of three young people whose symptoms weren’t taken seriously due at least in part, they believe, to their age. Here’s how they paid the price, and what they wish would have happened instead.
A 20-year-old was sent home from the ER with a migraine diagnosis even though he couldn’t walk
Xavier Ortiz was playing basketball when a few of his pals, who are nurses, noticed his drifting eye. They urged him to go to the emergency room, where he complained of classic stroke signs like a severe headache, light sensitivity, blurry vision, dizziness, and numbness on one side of his body, his girlfriend, Natasha Sanchez, told Insider.
But the clinician told them it was a migraine, gave Ortiz an IV and pain meds, and sent him on his way, Sanchez said. She and Ortiz’s mom, who had joined them by that point, had to carry him out to the car.
The next day, Ortiz started seizing in bed. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where clinicians suspected he had taken drugs. It wasn’t until the next day, when a second neurologist looked at Ortiz’s brain scans, that the family learned he’d had a serious stroke and had only a 3% chance of survival.
Ortiz, who lives in New Jersey and had graduated from technical college shortly before his stroke, survived, though a year post-stroke he couldn’t speak, walk, or take care of himself, his stepmom, Jackie Ortiz, said.
She wonders what could have happened had her husband taken Xavier Ortiz to the ER that first night. It’s in his nature to stand up to authority figures like doctors and, research suggests, doctors are less likely to gaslight a man than a young person or woman.
“Maybe things would’ve been different for us,” Jackie Ortiz said.
Doctors were sure drugs had caused a 27-year-old woman’s symptoms
Doctors encouraged Brittany Scheier to confess. “They kept asking me, ‘Did you do drugs? It’s OK [if you did],'” the Texas-based lawyer told Insider.
But Scheier, who was 27 at the time, had nothing to reveal, except that she’d been celebrating her birthday at wineries the day before. Then, in the middle of the night she woke up with extreme nausea and ran to the bathroom to throw up.
“All of a sudden I realized I couldn’t move the right side of my body. I tried to stand up, I couldn’t. I tried to reach for things, I couldn’t,” Scheier said. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick, and she screamed for her roommates, who carried her limp body to a car and drove her to the emergency room.
Clinicians ordered a CT scan five hours after her arrival. Scheier had had a stroke. “It was just shocking,” she said, “I thought strokes were only something that happened to people my grandparents’ age.”
Scheier recovered with months medications and various outpatient therapies. She had to relearn how to drive, and couldn’t be left alone since her depth perception and coordination made it difficult to walk.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a New York City cardiologist, told Insider Scheier’s experience demonstrates how critical it is for women — who are more likely to get, and die from, strokes than men — to advocate for themselves.
“So many times I hear, ‘I was listening to the doctor. Maybe they’re right,'” she said. But “nobody is living in our bodies. We know when we’re not OK.”
A 26-year-old felt unseen at the ER because of her age
Jenna Goldman had learned how to cope with her occasional but debilitating ocular migraines: “Get me home, put a cloth over my head, sit in a dark room for a few hours and just relax,” Goldman, then 26, told Insider.
But one day in 2020, those tools didn’t work. Goldman, a marketing and events professional in New York, developed numbness on the left side of her body, couldn’t move or talk, and began sweating — and vomiting — profusely.
“I felt like something just took over my body and threw me to the ground. I had no idea what was going on,” she said.
But at the hospital, which was overrun by COVID patients, Goldman wasn’t prioritized. “The lights are so bright, I’m in so much pain, I haven’t had water, I’m just a big mess, and no one’s treating me,” she said. “They just think I’m a girl with a migraine.”
The next day, Goldman was given an MRI, which revealed she’d suffered multiple strokes across her brain.
Goldman spent three months in physical therapy and, more than two years later, still had trouble concentrating, got tired and hot easily, and lacked sensation on her left side.
Doctors eventually linked her stroke to her birth control pills, which increase the risk of stroke — especially among people with ocular migraines.
“If my gynecologist had ever told me that migraine and birth control don’t go together,” she said, “then I would have gotten off of anything estrogen related.”