SELINSGROVE — In 2014 Kara Bigger was a happy 25-year-old married woman who was in seemingly good health. She had a job she liked and had, in fact, recently been promoted. Things were going well.
“I was healthy — I hadn’t had any medical conditions, no issues,” said Kara.
So one day, when she got a terrible headache, she didn’t think much of it.
“I was at work when it started, and it just progressively got worse,” she recalled.
Having gotten headaches in the past, Kara said she went home to rest, hoping it would pass. When it didn’t, and the pain became intolerable, her husband, Cody, took her to the Med Express in Selinsgrove.
“They said it was a migraine,” said Cody. “They gave her a shot and said the pain should go away in about 20 minutes. They told me to take her home and to get some sleep.”
So that’s what he did — once Kara was settled in, Cody went back to work. But Kara’s headache didn’t go away; instead, it got worse.
“I waited an hour and a half and it just wouldn’t go away,” said Kara. She tried taking a hot shower, but still, the headache persisted. Eventually, Kara called her husband at work and asked him to take her to the emergency room at Evangelical Community Hospital.
During the drive, Cody said he noticed his wife wasn’t acting quite right.
“Her speech was a little bit off and she couldn’t really walk on her own,” he said.
Still operating under the assumption that Kara’s pain was due to “a really bad headache,” neither Cody nor Kara gave much thought to the pain being associated with anything serious. They certainly didn’t think it was possible Kara was suffering a stroke.
But that’s exactly what was happening.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, an observance that highlights the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke. Kara and Cody wanted to share their story with the hope that someone else can learn from their experience.
Dr. Christopher Cummings, a neurologist at Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, was one of the doctors who treated Kara. He said a sudden and severe headache is often a sign of something more serious and should not be shrugged off.
“Kara suffered what is called a hemorrhagic stroke,” explained Cummings.
A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel ruptures. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age and, as in Kara’s case, can cause serious problems.
Other types of strokes include ischemic strokes (clots), (which, according to the American Stroke Association, account for 87 percent of all strokes); TIA (transient ischemic attack), cryptogenic strokes (a stroke of unknown cause) and a brain stem stroke.
The most common cause of hemorrhagic stroke is uncontrolled high blood pressure, said Cummings. However, in Kara’s case, she had one of the less common causes called “venous hypertension.”
“That is, she had increased blood pressure in the veins,” he said. “This can cause a hemorrhage into all different compartments and can also cause very high inter-cranial pressure. When you can’t get the blood out of your head, you often cannot get spinal fluid out of your head and that tends to cause very high inter cranial pressure.”
Fortunately for Kara, when she arrived at Evangelical Community Hospital, they were prepared to act fast.
“When we got there, they took her right in — didn’t even wait a minute,” Cody recalled. “They did a CAT scan (special X-ray tests that produce cross-sectional images of the body using X-rays and a computer) and said there was bleeding into her brain and a blood clot.”
Kara was taken by LifeFlight to Geisinger Medical Center.
“I was shocked and confused,” said Kara. “I was still thinking, ‘I just have a bad headache,’” she said. “All they really told me was that I had bleeding into the brain … but I didn’t know what that meant.”
That’s about all Kara can tell you about her ordeal, because she doesn’t remember much else.
“When we got to Geisinger, they did tests to confirm what was happening,” said Cody.
For the next 30 days, Kara laid in the hospital. She had a feeding tube and a ventilator to help her breath. At one point, the bleeding got so bad they had to do an emergency surgery, remove part of her skull because her brain was swelling.
Kara’s condition improved slowly over time, but she had to relearn many basic skills.
“I had to relearn everything — talking, walking, writing,” she said. “I think it took about two weeks before I could walk.”
Four years and a lot of speech therapy later, things are again going well for Kara, but she is often reminded of her ordeal by minor, lingering complications.
“Everything is pretty much back 100 precemt except my speech,” she said.
“Sometimes when she gets excited or confused it will get mixed up,” said Cody.
“It took time to be able to get back to my regular, daily routine and my job,” said Kara. “At first I could only work four hour shifts at a time, but now I’m back to working part-time and I’m driving again.
Dr. Cummings credits her recovery, in part, to Kara and Cody’s decision to head directly to the ER when her symptoms failed to improve that evening. And even though she’s healthy now, he said, since she’s had one stroke, she is at risk now for having another.
“Once someone has a stroke, whatever has caused it, those factors need to be identified and treated appropriately,” said Cummings. “If not, then a person is at a fairly high risk of having another stroke. Even if the factors are identified, a patient remains at increased risk.”
The good news is, he said, that if a patient is treated appropriately, the risk of having another stroke is down to about 2 percent going forward.
For Kara, doctors had differing opinions on what the true cause of her stroke was, but Cummings said oral contraceptives may have played a part.
“I was on birth control at the time,” she said. “One doctor told me it had to do with my birth control and another doctor mentioned a genetic blood clotting disorder that may have caused it, though that’s not likely.”
“Basically, we have no definitive idea what caused it,” said Cody.
Kara now takes daily medications to prevent seizures, which commonly occur following a stroke, she said.
She will take blood thinners for the rest of her life as well, but, she said, that’s a small trade off for peace of mind.
“I’m happy I’m still here for sure, and I’m happy that Cody was there with me,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to go back and thank the doctors who helped save me, because without them, I wouldn’t be here.”