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Stroke victim aims to build awareness

Lily Burns, staff associate in the president's office, had a stroke at age 33. She has now recovered, but she is determined to write about her experience to offer other young stroke victims a place to turn for information.
Lily Burns, staff associate in the president's office, had a stroke at age 33. She has now recovered, but she is determined to write about her experience to offer other young stroke victims a place to turn for information.
Photo / Donna Coveney

When you are having a stroke, time is of the essence.

That's the lesson Lily Burns, a staff associate in the Office of the Chair of the Faculty, learned after suffering a stroke last year at the age of 33, and now she is trying to share that lesson with others.

This fall, she plans to start speaking at American Heart Association events to help educate people about the signs of stroke and how to respond to them. And on Sept. 15, she will lead 10,000 walkers in a warmup before the 2007 Start! Boston Heart Walk.

Burns, who has been at MIT for six years, also plans to captain a team of about 10 friends and relatives in the six-mile Boston Heart Walk, which starts at the Hatch Shell.

Raising awareness of the dangers of stroke is especially important considering that heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 3 killers, respectively, in the United States, Burns said.

"When it comes to something like heart attack or stroke, I think it's safe to say everyone knows someone directly or indirectly who's affected, or could be affected," she said.

Burns was in perfect health until her stroke on July 21 last year. She is trim, doesn't smoke and teaches aerobics classes twice a week. "If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody," she said.

Burns had just finished teaching an aerobics class and was on her way to lunch with her boyfriend and a friend when she started to have difficulty walking and speaking. Her boyfriend recognized what was happening and immediately took her to the hospital, where doctors realized she had had a stroke. She received treatment within 15 minutes of the stroke and as a result, she was able to recover fairly quickly.

Getting treatment within three hours can reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke, according to the American Stroke Association.

"I was very lucky that I didn't have to go to rehab because I was brought to the hospital straightaway and started getting treatment right away," Burns said.

Doctors discovered that a 2.5-centimeter clot had traveled to her head. Further tests revealed that Burns had a small hole in her heart, which she had not known about before the stroke.

Last December, she underwent successful open heart surgery to repair the hole. Her surgeon, Ralph De La Torre, is a graduate of the Harvard and MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and chief of cardiac surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He developed the technique that he used to operate on her, which allows for open heart surgery without the ribs being cracked open. The procedure is less invasive and leaves a much smaller scar.

After her experience, Burns decided that she wanted to help make other people more aware of the symptoms of a stroke, the need for immediate treatment, and ways to prevent stroke and heart disease.

Only 13 percent of women view heart disease as a health threat, even though it is the No. 1 killer for women, according to the American Heart Association. The AHA recently launched a "Go Red for Women" campaign to educate women about heart disease.

"For women, the symptoms for heart disease are very different than they are for men," said Burns, who will be participating in the "Go Red" campaign.

To learn more about heart disease and stroke and the Heart Walk, visit the AHA web site and the Sept. 15 Boston Heart Walk site.

Stroke warning signs:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
    Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

(Source: American Stroke Association)

Heart attack warning signs:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

(Source: American Heart Association)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 2007 (download PDF).

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