Mum-of-three Kerri-Ann Wool, 36, from Portsmouth, reveals how doctors suggested she "get a manicure to cheer herself up" when they failed to spot she’d had a stroke at the age of 30.
I was pushing my seven-month-old baby, Watson, in his pram on the way to the shops one morning when suddenly the world around me became distorted. It was the strangest sensation – I felt like everything was stretched out in front of me and I was being pulled to one side.
Frightened, but trying to stay calm, I thought maybe I was dizzy with hunger, so I staggered home. I tried to make myself a sandwich but my vision was so disturbed I couldn’t see my way around the kitchen. My head was pounding and by the time my two older children – Faith and Cassie, then aged 10 and 12 – came home from school, it felt like I had been punched in the base of my skull. I couldn’t stand up, felt extremely weak and had pins and needles in both my arms. I lay on the sofa sobbing, I was afraid I could be dying.
I’ve always been relatively fit and healthy, and I had worked in a busy primary school kitchen up until I was 35 weeks pregnant with Watson, without any problems. I had no idea what it could be. I booked an emergency appointment to see a GP but she told me the dizziness was probably caused by a change in blood pressure and didn’t seem concerned.
But as the intense dizziness and throbbing in my head intensified, I kept going back over the next three days asking for help, seeing a different doctor each time. By my fourth visit, I hadn’t slept properly in days and started sobbing hysterically. To my disappointment and frustration, the male GP told me he thought I had postnatal depression. He prescribed me antidepressants and suggested I should "go and get my nails done" to cheer myself up. I felt like I was being dismissed as a hysterical woman, it was awful.
Desperate for answers
At that point, I was struggling to get out of bed. I didn’t know which way was up or down, as I was so dizzy. My head was in so much pain and my whole body just didn’t feel like it was mine. I was unable to do simple tasks and I was terrified about looking after Watson on my own, so my husband Martin took time off work from his job as a beer dispensary technician to look after me and the children.
After the GP turned me away for the fourth time, Martin was so worried he took me to A&E – but medics there sent me home without doing any tests, telling me it was probably a migraine and I should take paracetamol. We both knew something was seriously wrong and we really needed answers, so I kept going back.
I couldn’t stand up, felt extremely weak and had pins and needles in both my arms. I lay on the sofa sobbing, afraid I could be dying.
It was only on my fourth trip in three days that I was finally referred to have an MRI scan, a week later. I went home and counted down the days to the scan. Afterwards, I assumed someone would call if the scan showed anything important, but I heard nothing. I thought maybe the doctors had been right about migraines and tried to carry on.
It was only when I went to the GP about something unrelated two months later that he mentioned casually in passing that my MRI results were in – he told me the notes showed I had a genetic abnormality affecting the shape of my brain. But the condition, Chiari malformation, is something you’re born with – so it didn’t explain the sudden onset of my symptoms. It also didn’t explain my dizziness and pain, but the doctor said this was probably down to migraines.
It was a relief of sorts to get a diagnosis but I couldn’t shake the nagging doubt that there must be more to it and a reason why this had all started so suddenly.
I was given all sorts of medications for migraines, nausea and depression, but nothing seemed to help. I had to stop breastfeeding Watson in order to take the tablets, which made me put on three stone in weight and gave me heart palpitations. I was miserable.
I kept being told that my symptoms were caused by migraines and I had to learn to cope. But they were affecting every aspect of my life. Since it first started, in September 2018, I’ve been so dizzy that I can’t stand or walk for very long – even now.
My brain is nowhere near as sharp as it used to be and I get horrendous migraines which make me feel sick.
My brain is nowhere near as sharp as it used to be and I get horrendous migraines which make me feel sick. It’s a bit like being intensely hungover all the time – on bad days I can’t get out of bed. I haven’t been able to go back to my job as a school kitchen assistant or enjoy my hobby of baking cakes. I feel like I’m a shadow of the person I was before.
Eventually, I got so fed up with what my life had become that I decided to request all my medical notes. I wanted to see for myself whether there was anything which could explain how I was feeling.
I received the notes in September 2019 – a year after my symptoms started and started to go through them line by line, like a detective. I noticed my MRI scan report from that time showed a diagnosis of an 'infarct'. I had no idea what that meant until I Googled it and was shocked to discover it was a medical term for 'stroke'.
I couldn’t possibly have had a stroke, because surely someone would have told me if I had?
The report also included a scan image which showed a white blob at the base of my brain, which it said was a stroke in my cerebellum, the part of the brain which controls balance. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t possibly have had a stroke, because surely someone would have told me if I had?
With my heart racing, I phoned the hospital’s patient liaison team and asked them to look into it. A couple of days later, my phone rang at 8pm just after I’d put the children to bed. It was a neurologist. She was very apologetic and said the MRI scan I’d had the previous year had found I’d had a stroke – but she’d not noticed it when she skim-read the report. "You were so young I just assumed it was a migraine," she said.
The truth at last
Everything clicked into place. Although later I would feel furious about the fact my stroke was missed, at first I just felt a huge wave of relief at being validated – suddenly everything I’d complained about for a year made sense. Before knowing the truth, I’d been made to feel like I was going crazy.
Within the next week, I got a different appointment letter every day for test after test – all for checks I should have had the previous year when I’d had the stroke. I was glad something was finally happening, but furious that no one had listened to me at the time.
I dread to think what could have happened if I hadn’t played detective and investigated my own notes.
During the final test, doctors discovered an undiagnosed hole in my heart, which I have probably had since birth. It may have triggered the stroke by letting a clot into my bloodstream which travelled up to my brain.
In July 2021, I had surgery to close the hole to reduce my chances of having another stroke or heart failure. I dread to think what could have happened if I hadn’t played detective and investigated my own notes.
But I’m also really angry. If someone had taken me seriously in the first place, I could have had clot-busting drugs or rehabilitation after my stroke to help improve my symptoms. Because no one did, I may be stuck feeling like this permanently.
I felt like I was robbed of the first few years of Watson’s life, as I was too ill to be as involved as I wanted to be – and my memory is so affected I can hardly remember much of that time.
And as I look fine from the outside, I get judged for not being able to work and using my blue badge to park, which is challenging.
What you should know
Luckily, everything Martin and I have gone through has made our relationship stronger and I have found support through the charity Different Strokes. It runs a brilliant Facebook group for young stroke survivors where I can get advice or rant if I’ve had a hard day to people who understand what I’m going through.
I wish I’d known that you don’t have to be old to have a stroke and what the warning signs were. Most people assume your face will droop but mine didn’t because of the location of the stroke in my brain. In fact, common signs to look out for in young people are the sudden onset of a severe headache, balance problems, vision loss or distortion, speech difficulty and weakness on one side of the body or in the arms.
Early diagnosis is so important in saving lives and preventing lasting health problems like mine. In the future, I hope young people with stroke symptoms will be taken more seriously than I was, so they can get the treatment they need in time.