Exactly five months after suffering a stroke, on May 6, Tammy Unger of West Union, Ohio, crossed the Flying Pig Marathon’s "Finish Swine” with a new personal record for the half marathon.
"I have a new perspective on everything; my daughter calls me Mary Poppins. I love to feel the rain on my face—the sunshine—and running just feels so good for my body; I had to keep doing it,” says the 51-year-old grandmother of three.
A successful run and time with her family means a lot more to Tammy since Dec. 6, 2017.
She had stayed up late the night before, writing out Christmas cards, going to bed just after midnight. When she awoke the next morning around 6:30 a.m. something wasn’t quite right.
"I opened my eyes and was seeing like a kaleidoscope, blocks of six, so I didn’t get up right away—next thing I remember, my husband was standing over me waking me up and that was around 8 a.m.,” she says, adding that she felt dizzy and can only recall brief snatches of time as she "phased in and out” or "dozed off” during her morning routine.
"My husband was insistent, ‘You need to go to hospital,’” she says. Unger felt adamant that nothing was wrong but agreed to text her primary care doctor, who called her right back and told her to "go to the ER and tell them to treat it like it’s a stroke.”
They went to nearby Adams County Hospital where Unger remembers having a CAT scan and being reassured by visiting family and friends.
The hospital debated transferring her via air care to University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC)—Tammy didn’t want to see that bill, she exclaims—so ultimately they decided to send her via ambulance. And while she admits she had some hesitation about being sent to UCMC, she says, "I’ve never had such an amazing experience.
"Immediately two or three nurses came to my assistance, and I got amazing care from the residents and head intern.”
Figuring Out the Kaleidoscope Effect
They first discussed that it could be a migraine, something Tammy previously suffered from, but they decided to keep her overnight for observation.
Daniel Woo, MD, professor of neurology, a member of the UC stroke team and a UC Health physician, says the kaleidoscopic symptom is definitely unusual, but not out of the question as a symptom of stroke.
"I’ve seen it maybe one other time in my career, and Tammy has a history of migraines, so a lot of people might have passed this off as a migraine event. Upon review, we were concerned it could be a stroke, so we sent her to get an MRI, and sure enough, her results showed stroke. Because of where in the brain the stroke occurred, that could explain the kaleidoscopic visual disturbances,” says Woo.
"Nevertheless with this and her age being young for stroke, it made me concerned she was at risk of having a big stroke in the future, and so that included a detailed look at her heart and other labs to make sure there wasn’t anything affecting her coagulopathy [blood clotting].”
After being treated, one of her first questions to Dr. Woo was, "Can I run?” He said yes, as long as she took it slowly. And no marathons (yet).
"So five days later, I grabbed a couple friends, and we went running for the first time since my stroke,” she says.
Woo thinks that is perfectly fine for her. "In general, your brain’s response to an injury like that is to think, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to slow everything down,’ but actually in most cases, it’s important to return to your normal activities quickly,” he says, "but a little working up to it is wise to make sure it’s tolerated well.”
Hitting the Pavement After Stroke
Unger has closely followed doctor’s orders while training for the half marathon. "I felt great, and it just so happened that the race day was my fifth month stroke anniversary, so it made it even more special to me,” she says.
She adds that her passion for running didn’t hit until age 42, after her kids had grown. She works out five days during the week, usually averaging a 6 mile run with 10 miles on the weekend. She increased steadily as she readied for the Flying Pig.
In addition to running, she and her husband Jim farm 500 acres with beef cattle "as a hobby,” she says, while also owning two businesses.
Unger recently celebrated a birthday and was showered with messages, calls and posts on social media celebrating life, which really moved her when she thinks back to just a few months ago.
"I just can’t believe how close death can be,” she says. "We need to find a cure (for stroke), and if I can be an advocate, to say, ‘I ate healthy; I exercised,’ ask my kids—I have a heart rate of 50! And it still happened to me. I want to be a part of making a difference.”
Screening for and preventing hypertension (high blood pressure), what Woo calls the "silent killer,” is so important because many people can have it without any symptoms; he says it is one of the biggest risks you can control, along with diabetes, smoking, heart disease and high cholesterol.
He agrees with Unger that it’s important to keep your risk low. "Anyone can have a stroke, at any age,” he says. "You may be the picture of health, and so then, yes, your risk is lower, but it is still possible to have a stroke. You should do everything you can to lower your risk.”