Kristen Wingate is a 42-year-old mother of three. She’s an avid runner and loves the outdoors. She’s passionate about her job as the lead pediatric enteral feeding technician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, where she’s part of a specialized team that prepares feedings for high-risk infants. She’s also a stroke survivor.

News, Your Health | 13 days ago

Young Stroke Survivor’s Message: It Can Happen to Anyone

Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States. But with fast, expert care from Atrium Health, Kristen made a full recovery. Now, she’s sharing her story.


Kristen Wingate is a 43-year-old mother of three. She’s an avid runner and loves the outdoors. She’s passionate about her job as the lead pediatric enteral feeding technician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, where she’s part of a specialized team that prepares feedings for high-risk infants.

She’s also a stroke survivor.

“I would never have thought that this would ever happen to me. It still shocks me,” Kristen says of her serious health scare. “But it’s what happened. It can happen to anyone.”

Something isn’t right

When Kristen woke up on December 15, 2018, she knew it would be a difficult day – she was planning to attend a funeral for a friend who’d tragically passed away.

She was at home waiting for her mom and best friend to pick her up when she started to feel “off.” She had a headache that was getting worse and her speech was a bit slurred, but at the time, she didn’t think much of it.

When they arrived, Kristen’s mother sensed that something wasn’t right. She handed her daughter a glass of water. “I tried to grab it with my left hand, and in my mind, I was grabbing the water,” Kristen says. “But my hand never made it there.”

Her loved ones noticed her left eye looked different, too – it was slightly droopy. Kristen’s husband asked if she could move her left foot. She couldn’t.

It still didn’t register with Kristen that her symptoms were serious, but by then, those around her knew exactly what was going on: She was experiencing the signs of a stroke. Kristen’s husband put her in the car and rushed her to Atrium Health’s emergency department in SouthPark.

Every minute counts

A stroke, sometimes called a “brain attack,” occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off. And when a stroke occurs, every minute counts. Experts often use the phrase “time is brain” to describe the rapid – and irreversible – loss of brain cells as a stroke progresses.

During the average stroke, nearly two million brain cells die each minute it goes untreated. Fast treatment is critical.

As soon as Kristen, 42 at the time, arrived at the emergency department, her care team sprang into action. She got a CT scan with advanced imaging that shows any problems with blood flow to the brain. Special software sends the images to a team of physicians at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center (CMC), and within minutes, these experts can identify a stroke and get the right treatment in motion.

Through Atrium Health’s telestroke program, a FaceTime-like videoconferencing system, Kristen was connected to a neurologist at CMC with critical stroke expertise. Telestroke ensures that every patient receives the specialized treatment they need as quickly as possible.

Kristen’s imaging confirmed that she was having an ischemic stroke, or a stroke caused by a blood clot. In her case, the clot was in the carotid artery, one of the main arteries in the neck that supplies blood to the brain.

She was given tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a clot-dissolving medication, through an IV. Sometimes tPA is all that’s needed to restore blood flow. But the stroke team reading Kristen’s scans saw that her stroke required more extensive treatment, so she was rushed by ambulance to CMC.

The best chance of recovery

As soon as any of Atrium Health’s hospitals are alerted that a patient experiencing a stroke is on their way, a team is prepared to deliver treatment as quickly as possible.

At CMC, Kristen was taken directly to see Gary DeFilipp, MD , an interventional neuroradiologist and medical director of the neuroendovascular program at Atrium Health’s Neurosciences Institute. Dr. DeFilipp performed a mechanical thrombectomy, a minimally invasive procedure in which a thin tube called a catheter is placed in an artery at the top of the leg. The catheter is then moved through the blood vessels up to the neck and brain where the clot is removed.

Dr. DeFilipp successfully reopened Kristen’s carotid artery, restoring blood flow to her brain. After the procedure, she recovered in the intensive care unit for two nights. That’s where she met Joe Bernard, MD , a neurosurgeon practicing with Neurosciences Institute.

“He said that he had been following my case since I got there,” Kristen says. “He just seemed so kind and warm and interested, and really like he cared.”

According to Dr. Bernard, imaging showed that without the advanced treatment she received, Kristen’s stroke could have escalated into one that would have left her severely disabled – the type of stroke that’s fatal in about 7 out of 10 people.

Stroke recovery can be a long road – it’s the leading cause of disability in the United States. That’s why Atrium Health has developed one of the largest and most comprehensive stroke rehabilitation programs in the region. When brain damage occurs, it can lead to partial or total paralysis, memory or vision loss, behavior changes and speech problems. The lasting effects, also called deficits, depend on the part of the brain that’s affected and the severity of the damage.

But the faster blood flow is restored to the brain, the better the chances for recovery. Fortunately, Kristen got the right treatment quickly.

“By the time I left the hospital I had no deficits, thank goodness,” she says.

Kristen Wingate is a 42-year-old mother of three. She’s an avid runner and loves the outdoors. She’s passionate about her job as the lead pediatric enteral feeding technician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, where she’s part of a specialized team that prepares feedings for high-risk infants. She’s also a stroke survivor.

Life as a stroke survivor

During a follow-up visit with Dr. Bernard, a CAT scan showed that although Kristen’s brain was healing well, the small bulge where her artery spontaneously tore was now enlarging. This type of bulge, known as a false aneurysm, can occur when blood is pumping through an injured area.

“About 70 percent of the time, those will heal up and we don’t need to do anything,” says Dr. Bernard. “But over a few months, hers had gotten significantly larger.”

Dr. Bernard recommended placing a small, metal mesh tube called a stent in Kristen’s carotid artery to give it more support and maintain healthy blood flow. He compares a stent to a screened porch. When it rains, water hits the screen and flows down, and the furniture inside doesn’t get wet.

“With a stent, the blood flows along this tubular ‘window screen’ of mesh,” he explains. “That keeps the blood inside the normal blood vessel and allows the blood vessel to heal, and for the false aneurysm to seal up around it.”

Dr. Bernard performed the procedure, and within 24 hours, Kristen was home. Since then, life has returned to “normal” – or as normal as can be after such a life-changing experience. And while she never expected to call herself a stroke survivor, it’s taught her to be present and live in the moment. “You definitely appreciate things a little differently after a stroke,” she says.

“I’ve been able to get back to everything,” Kristen adds. “Sometimes I stop and think, ‘What if this wasn’t my story?’ There are plenty of things that could have happened. I’m so thankful.”

Know the signs, know where to go

Young, active people like Kristen aren’t usually associated with stroke. But stroke can happen to anyone at any age: Experts at Atrium Health have treated stroke in patients anywhere from 4 to 102 years old.

Some factors that increase the risk for stroke can be changed or treated, like high blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol. In these cases, stroke may even be prevented. But sometimes, stroke happens without any risk factors at all.

That’s what happened to Kristen. In her case, carotid artery dissection, or a tear in the carotid artery, led to a clot that disrupted blood flow. It’s a common cause of stroke in people younger than 50 who have no related health issues.

A tear in the carotid artery can result from injury during ordinary events, like dancing, practicing yoga and even sneezing. It may not have symptoms at first. To this day, Kristen and her doctors don’t know what caused her artery to tear.

But no matter the age or cause, experts agree that one thing offers the best outcomes: getting the right treatment fast.

“We occasionally see people who thought they might have been having a stroke, and they just decided to go rest for a while,” says Dr. DeFilipp. “Don’t do that. Call 911 if you think someone is having a stroke.”

After her experience, Kristen urges others to know the signs of stroke and what to do when you spot them. She knows her outcome could’ve been different if her loved ones weren’t paying close attention to her symptoms.

“That is definitely what saved my life,” she says.

If you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke, call 911. To learn more about the signs and symptoms of stroke, and comprehensive stroke care at Atrium Health, visit AtriumHealth.org/Stroke .