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Bri Winkler shares her stroke story, hopes it can help others

You know her as part of the ABC7 weather team. But Bri Winkler wants to share a story that few have known about.
May 12, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
You know her as part of the weather team at ABC7. But meteorologist Bri Winkler wants to share a story that few have known about -- until now.

And what you learn from her story, could save someone's life.

Just two years ago, at the age of 24, Bri woke up feeling a numbness spread from her face to her entire right side. She didn't know it at the time, but Bri was having a stroke, and now she is on a mission to let people know how stroke can hit anyone, at any age.

Bri predicts weather patterns for a living, but no one could predict the health scare she endured Sept. 12, 2012. She had set her alarm for 5 a.m. to exercise, but five minutes after she woke up, she realized something was terribly wrong.

"First, I lost the hearing out of my right ear," said Bri. "The numbness spread to my face and went down to my arm and my leg. When I went to stand, I realized I couldn't. So then I had to get on the floor and crawl."

She crawled to her phone and called her sister, Tara, who lives 3,000 miles away in Boston.

"My sister thought that I had low blood sugar, so she was trying to coax me down to the kitchen. At the time, I lived in a two-story condo, so I had two flights of stone steps to get down," said Bri.

Bri "army crawled" all the way down, dragging her body only using her left arm and leg. Looking back, Tara recalls she thought it might be a stroke but she second-guessed herself.

"I thought, 'Why would a 20-year-old girl with no history? No one in our family has ever had a stroke. Why would it be a stroke?" said Tara.

One telltale sign of stroke is slurred speech, but Bri was speaking clearly. Eventually, Tara realized it was something serious and reached out to a family friend in Southern California, who called 911.

Paramedics rushed Bri to Huntington Hospital. For someone to have a stroke in their 20s is very rare. But the type of stroke Bri had was exceptionally rare. The cause was a vertebral artery dissection. She had a flap-like tear in a key blood vessel.

"It could either be spontaneous, meaning that it just happens. It can be because of some sort of trauma," said Dr. Arbi Ohanian, a neurologist at Huntington Hospital.

Ohanian says in Bri's case that trauma could have been triggered by certain yoga poses or chiropractic manipulation. Bri did both shortly before her stroke. Doctors still can't say for sure what caused the tear, but what they do know is that a blood clot had formed, blocking a key artery in Bri's brainstem in the area that controls breathing and heart rate.

"It was in a very scary location," said Ohanian.

And the clock was ticking. The standard treatment is giving a drug called TPA, sometimes called a "clot buster," which can reverse the effects of a stroke.

But it has to be given within three hours of the stroke. By the time Bri arrived at the hospital, doctors had little time to assess her condition.

With only two minutes left, Ohanian had to make the crucial decision. He felt it was Bri's only chance. To his relief, it worked.

"Within what felt like seconds, I could feel my face again and it spread down to my arm and my leg. It was this insane pins and needles, but it was such a beautiful awakening. It was like every cell was becoming alive again," said Bri.

A year and a half after her stroke, Bri looks back and realizes so many things could have gone wrong.

"I view it as such a positive thing in my life because I do appreciate everything a lot more," she said.

If she didn't wake up to exercise, she might have slept through the stroke. If she couldn't get someone to call 911, she might have missed her treatment window. At any point, things could have ended far differently and she knows it.

"There's a reason why I'm here today and I really think a big part of that is spreading the story," Bri said. "And if that's all that I can do to make one person learn the symptoms and maybe they save a life or they save their own life, then I've done my job."

On Tuesday, May 13, on the Eyewitness News Morning Show, Bri will be in the studio live to talk about her recovery and why she feels she was given a second chance.

Then, later that day, starting at 4 p.m. on Eyewitness News, join us for our Stroke Hotline as a panel of physicians, including Bri's own doctor, answers your questions and provides lifesaving information on how to recognize the warning signs of stroke.

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