Courtesy Nicole Thomas
Kristin Denman was watching her six-year-old son David play soccer when things went horribly wrong: “One minute, he was running on the field, and the next he was holding his head and couldn’t speak,” recalls the 48-year-old Michigan mother of two. “I’d just read something about stroke, and as I saw the palsy set into his face, I knew that’s what I was seeing.” A stroke in someone so young might seem like a rare thing, but it’s actually one of the top 10 causes of death in children, according to the National Stroke Association. Here’s what you need to know.
Face: drooping or numbness on one side
Arm: weakness or numbness in one arm
Stability: trouble keeping balance
Talking: slurring words or an inability to respond appropriately
Eyes: any changes, like seeing double, vision loss in one eye, or partial loss in one or both eyes
React: call 911 immediately if you see these signs
In children, additional symptoms include sudden severe headache, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, confusion or difficulty speaking, vision impairment, and loss of balance or coordination. “Children are also more likely to present with a seizure when they have a stroke, or in some cases can be difficult to wake up,” says Salman Azhar, MD, Director of Stroke at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Head pain can be a sign in adults too: Read how this woman’s “headache” turned out to be a stroke.
Trust your instincts
Courtesy Kristin Denman
Even though Denman suspected stroke, she still had to convince the doctors, who were focusing instead on head trauma. “They didn’t believe a child could have a stroke,” she says. This isn’t uncommon, says Jessica Spear, founder of the World Pediatric Stroke Association. “You need to be your child’s best advocate,” says Spear, whose son Brendon had a stroke before birth. It took 19 months to get a diagnosis, even though she noticed classic warning signs early on, like favoring one side of his body. “They told me I was a paranoid parent,” she says. Learn more about signs of stroke you should never ignore.
Immediately dial 911
“If David had been treated right away to remove the clot, he wouldn’t have had as much brain damage to the frontal lobe,” says Denman. For the best outcome, patients need to get treatment within three-and-a-half to four hours. The treatment may include blood-thinning medication and surgery. A primary weapon in strokes—tPA—isn’t yet FDA-approved for children under 18.
Know the causes
After doctors ran tests, they discovered David had suffered an ischemic stroke—a clot blocked the blood supply to his brain—probably caused by a tackle-football accident the week before. “He’d hit his head with enough force to knock his glasses off, but we’d been looking for signs of concussion and didn’t even think about stroke,” says Denman. “Turns out, the force from the tackle caused a small cut of the carotid artery [a blood vessel in the neck], which formed a blood clot. One week later as he was running, the clot broke off and traveled to his middle cerebral artery, and stuck there.” Other causes of stroke in children, says Dr. Azhar, include sickle-cell disease and congenital heart defects.
Don’t give up hope
Courtesy Tara Johnson Photography
“Six years ago, when my daughter had a stroke before birth, there was no information about stroke in children,” says Kaysee Hyatt, founder Pediatric Stroke Warriors. “I’ve seen huge strides in awareness since my daughter’s diagnosis, and in support groups, and I want to remind parents that they’re not alone.”
Today, at 13 years old, David has re-learned how to walk and talk. He still has cognitive impairment—”It’s just our new normal,” says Denman—and his right arm remains paralyzed. But with the support of his longtime school peers, family (including older brother Ethan), and his own dedication, he’s thriving. After realizing his soccer days may be over, David taught himself basketball and baseball, both of which he plays one-handed—”you just have to see it to believe it,” says dad Jeff Denman of his one-handed pitch-and-catch technique. David’s dedication is paying off—he just made the All-Star team for his second time.
“When David came back from the hospital, he said ‘anything is possible,’ and he’s proven that ever since,” says Jeff. “He’s a testament to the power of determination, medicine, and love. He teaches me every day that there are always options, and always more to strive for. It’s nothing short of a miracle.” Check out the stroke risks you can control—and the ones you can’t.