James' Story

Around Thanksgiving 2016, I developed a stiff neck. Since it was the holiday season, I decided to treat myself to a massage. On November 25, I got a massage that focused on my neck; as I was leaving, I stopped next door to get a quick adjustment from a chiropractor. What a mistake!

The next day, my neck pain had become a splitting headache. After a few days, I couldn’t take it anymore. I called my doctor and scheduled an appointment for Monday morning. The doctor thought it was just a side effect from the adjustment and prescribed medication to ease the pain. But the next few days saw no improvement—I even became dizzy—so I made another appointment. 

During this visit, we changed my medication. I was told if I was still having problems the next week to call so that I could see a physical therapist. Unfortunately, the headaches came with more fervor and intensity over the next couple of days.

On Monday, December 5, things got even worse. My headache was so bad at times that I had to place my head down on my desk—and I had blurry vision. After work, I went to an urgent care center. After four X-rays, I was told I had occipital neuralgia. In other words, the nerve that runs from the base of my skull to behind my eye was inflamed. The doctor gave me two shots and scheduled a follow-up the next day for a nerve-blocking shot.

When I woke up December 6, I reached for my phone. As I turned, so did the world—and it didn’t stop. I was sweating profusely and my whole body hurt. I knew I needed help … and fast. I called several friends, but no one answered. When my friend Lee finally answered, I said, “I’m calling 911! Come to my house.” Then, I hung up.

I told 911 that maybe I was having a heart attack. Thankfully, I had 911 on speakerphone because I couldn’t seem to talk or breathe; the woman at the other end said, “Just stay with me.” I soon heard sirens and felt I could relax.

The next few days were a whirlwind of tests, little sleep and unimaginable fear. I was told that I had had two cerebellar strokes and clusters of strokes beforehand. What scary news to hear at only 35! I was moved between hospitals and various units without many answers as to why this happened or how to make it stop. 

Everything became clearer when I was moved to the Neuro Trauma ICU at Greenville Memorial Hospital. After more tests, the doctor informed me that I had two vertebral artery dissections (one had been hidden by a blood clot but was now gone thanks to their care). That doctor was amazing! He and the NP spent hours over the next several days letting me ask as many questions as I could pose. Despite being in one of the most critical care units in the Upstate, things were looking better. Eventually, I was moved to the Stroke Center at Greenville Health System (GHS) to continue my recovery and was released after the right combination of therapy and medication was found.

What caused my strokes? The strokes were caused by the two tears in my arteries. My body was trying to heal those tears by clotting (like a scab) and throwing off blood clots, which caused the strokes. We don’t know for sure how many strokes I had, and we don’t know why the two on Tuesday were bigger than the ones before. What we do know is that some trauma has happened to my neck.

How am I doing today? I look at each day as a blessing and view life differently than I did before. I was told I would need to get use to a “new normal.” My neck, throat, head, arm (left) and leg (left) all hurt at times. My last scan showed improvement, but not as much as my doctor would like. I will have another scan in a few months and hope things will continue to improve. 

While some days are harder than others, each day is better than the one before. I’m at to the point where I can go to sleep without thinking I’m going to have another stroke. Although this experience has been the most terrifying in my life, I’m grateful for the care I received from the physicians and nurses at GHS. Without them, I might not be here to share my story.