Krysta Owings carries a Post-It note in her purse that serves as a reminder of where she’s been and where she’s going.
Monday, Nov. 6, 2016, was a normal day for Krysta. She worked at an equestrian barn as its manager and trained for riding competitions, which she had done for most of her life. She was 25, active, fit, and doing what she loved with a full life ahead.
“That evening, I was housesitting for my brother. When I woke the next day, I felt like I did any other day,” Krysta says. But by mid-morning, she was feeling “a little off.” In the shower, her sense of touch felt odd. Then, she says, “when I tried to watch TV, the images were blurry, a sort of double vision. And I was having trouble reading.”
Krysta telephoned a friend, reporting the events of the morning. The friend insisted she take her to an urgent-care clinic just in case. Krysta made some brief objections—“I’m fine; this will pass”—but they went anyway.
Initially, tests and an exam didn’t reveal much. “I really wasn’t worried,” Krysta says. “I was 25 and healthy.” Then a sense of urgency seemed to grip the clinic’s care team. She was told, “You need to get to the hospital now.” An ambulance arrived to take Krysta and her friend to the nearest emergency room.
Ultimately, after scans, tests, examinations and consultations in the ER, Krysta was admitted to the hospital. She was told she had an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, that had ruptured. AVM is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels in or on the brain that divert blood flow. Often present at birth, an AVM can burst, leak blood and cause a stroke.
After listening to the various treatment options presented to her daughter, Krysta’s mom decided they needed a second opinion. She called friends, friends of friends and anyone else she could think of, looking for a name, a specialist, someone who could make them feel confident everything was going to be okay.
Her search led her to Gregory Zipfel, MD, a Washington University neurosurgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Dr. Zipfel quickly made arrangements to have Krysta transferred to an intensive-care unit, where he had a team of specialists waiting for her.
“The minute I arrived on the floor, I knew I was in good hands,” Krysta says. “From that point on, every person caring for me made me feel confident and respected.”
Dr. Zipfel removed the AVM later that week. Krysta spent a few days recovering on the intensive-care unit, and then on a step-down unit. After discharge, she went to The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis for a week-long stay, where she worked hard in physical, speech and occupational therapy sessions. “I was determined to get my life back,” she says.
After she left rehab, Krysta composed that note to herself, trying to make sense of what had happened to her. She wrote: My purpose in life is to use my heart and compassion to help other survivors and raise health awareness. Krysta wonders if her stroke might have been more quickly diagnosed if she and others understood that a stroke can happen at any age.
Having survived the stroke, she’s back to living a full life but with a new sense of purpose. “I want people to know that stroke can happen to anyone,” she says. “I want to save lives.”