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Stroke victim to discuss warning signs, heart risks Saturday

‘63 Miss America was struck down when she was 28

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Jacquelyn Mayer will tell you being crowned Miss America in 1963 is not the event that has most affected her life. It was what happened a few years later.

One day she had a splitting headache and the next she was lying in bed, paralyzed and unable to speak.

At age 28, with a husband, a 5-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter depending on her, she had a massive stroke, apparently brought on by medication. It would be almost eight years before she could complete a sentence. Thirty years later, Mayer faces challenges and continues to improve.

She didn't know the warning signs of stroke. She didn't know about prevention. Most of all, she didn't know it could happen to a healthy young mother like her.

Mayer will be the featured speaker at a special luncheon as part of the American Heart Association's Women's Legacy Luncheon and Conference on Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Willow Creek Country Club, 8300 S. 2700 East in Sandy. The daylong conference will provide information and focus on the generational connection to heart health. To register, call 801-484-3838.

Mayer coped with her blinding headache by taking an over-the-counter remedy and going to bed. When she woke up, she couldn't move or ask for help. She was lucky because her husband was there and called the doctor.

The doctor didn't think about the possibility she was having a stroke. He told her husband to "wait and see if I come out of it." She didn't get to a hospital for three more hours.

Getting better has been literally a lifelong pursuit. But the message Mayer hopes people will carry away with them is that slow progress is still progress; it's possible to get better. And she wants women to think about their own health in terms of heart disease and stroke, since those are leading killers of both men and women.

"It was a process of saying my ABCs, learning to hold my mouth the correct way to form the letter," she said. "Then I had to put all those letters into words. Sometimes I could talk and say a couple of words, but would forget what I was talking about. It was very frustrating."

People today are more aware of their health, she said. The conference is about learning all kinds of ways to care for oneself.

When she tires, Mayer still speaks slowly. Sometimes she gropes for words to convey what she's trying to say. She doesn't read as well as she did and she can't always remember what she read. She gets tongue-tied.

Still, Mayer says she has a good life. She literally lived to tell about it, and she travels around the country speaking about stroke. She's a rehabilitation consultant at Providence Hospital in Sandusky, Ohio, which named its rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility after her.

Mayer's job is to tell women what they need to know: That numbness and weakness in part of the body, especially one side, can be a warning for stroke. So can confusion, trouble speaking, slurring, not understanding speech. Trouble seeing in one or both eyes are indicators, as are dizziness and balance problems. Headaches, too.

"These warning signs can go on for five minutes or much longer," she said. "Call 911 immediately."

The most common risk factors are hypertension, diabetes, being overweight, smoking, high cholesterol and irregular heartbeat. Sometimes it just happens.

"When you have a stroke, it takes time to recover. You can continue to recover ever so slowly if you continue working at it. Some say most of the recovery occurs in six months to a year. I know that isn't true. Even now I feel that I still recover."

Mayer said people who have strokes must not allow themselves to be limited by their prognosis. "Don't let anyone tell you how far you can or can't go," she said.

People who are told they will never walk again may not, but people often prove doctors wrong.

"The brain is so unique and so interesting. People just don't know how far they can recover," Mayer said.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com