Kids Can Have Strokes Too, AHA Warns

Michelle Ballasiotes suffered a stroke that changed her life, weakening the right side of her body and, doctors thought at the time, potentially hurting her future ability to speak.

Future ability, because at that point Michelle had never spoken. Unlike many of the millions of Americans who suffer strokes, Michelle suffered hers in the womb; she had not yet even been born.

As the American Heart Association releases the first comprehensive guidelines for childhood stroke on Thursday, Michelle, now 10, is among those hoping it will bring increased awareness of the fact that strokes can occur in children who need immediate assistance from doctors.

"I don't really know why I had a stroke, and that bothers me a little bit because I want to know why, and if there's any possible way that we could have prevented it from happening," she told ABC News.

Michelle has, in many ways, overcome the devastating effects that can follow stroke. She can speak without any noticeable sign of the affliction.

"I try not to let it hold me back, and I don't think it does," she said.

But she was also lucky. Doctors found evidence that something had happened while she was still in the womb, and she was able to receive treatment almost immediately after birth, having been diagnosed with stroke when she was three days old.

"She was one of the fortunate ones to get diagnosed so early," said her mother, Mary Kay Ballasiotes.

Michelle started physical therapy at six months.

"I think that has given her the head start to be normal … It's amazing, because she's been going to therapy every week for 10 years," said Mary Kay. "She's never had a day of speech therapy."

But many children are not as fortunate as Michelle, and Dr. E. Steve Roach, who headed the committee for the AHA's stroke guidelines, hopes this new paper will increase doctors' awareness of childhood stroke and change all that.

"There's a lot of expertise about it, but that expertise is clustered in a few places," he said.

Roach, a pediatric neurologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Ohio State University Medical Center, noted that childhood stroke receives little attention, even though it is more common than childhood brain tumors, affecting one out of every 3,000 to 4,000 children.

With these guidelines, he said, he hopes to bring the information about childhood stroke to pediatricians who may not be near any centers that specialize in pediatric stroke.

Dr. Lori Jordan, a pediatric neurologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Stroke Program, said that these guidelines do just that.

"I think they're excellent," she said. "I think they summarize a large body of literature in a way that physicians treating children with stroke can understand.

"There's been a lot of progress in the last decade. But a lot of what's out there is based on small numbers of patients or single centers reporting their experience with patients."

That lack of awareness of childhood stroke on the part of physicians has had some upsetting consequences.

Letitia Anthony of Edmond, Okla., remembers when her twins were born in 2004, and she noticed problems with her son Todd.

Although she and her husband work with adults who have suffered strokes, she said she didn't know they could happen in children — and it seemed, neither did their physician.

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