Gabriela DeLaVega wants everyone to understand that there are no symptoms of high blood pressure until it is too late. Nearly half of adult Americans have high blood pressure, which is the most common controllable risk factor for stroke — the number five cause of death in the U.S.
She should know, because her uncontrolled high blood pressure led to a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack), sometimes referred to as a mini-stroke.
For six years, DeLaVega has worked as a certified national language interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients at medical facilities in Grand Rapids. DeLaVega was accustomed to explaining medical conditions to others rather than experiencing them herself.
Her attack came in 2017, a time when she had suffered great losses and was under a lot of stress — the deaths of two grandparents and her father, as well as the end of her marriage. As a result, DeLaVega threw herself into her work “instead of taking the time to grieve,” she explained.
“I was interpreting for a patient in the Wege Center when I began to feel tired and dizzy. I was having trouble understanding not just English but Spanish, so I asked for a break.”
DeLaVega drank some coffee, splashed some water on her face and went back to work. “Unfortunately, my left side became numb, I began to drool, and I couldn’t interpret. I was very confused,” she recalled.
At first, the doctor thought she was experiencing the effects of high blood sugar, but she does not have diabetes. “I told him that it was probably my high blood pressure. That’s when they rushed me to emergency,” DeLaVega added.
She suspected her blood pressure because in 2014 DeLaVega began to have symptoms of high blood pressure. At the time, her medical care was with a different health system. Although she was trying to do all the right things — reduce her stress and make healthy lifestyle changes — she was having side effects from the medications and trouble finding the right dosages.”
This time, the symptoms were worse.
“When you are in the [medical] field and are aware of what can happen, sometimes you are more scared. I was very blessed because I knew I was in good hands,” she shared.
“Being an interpreter, I was already aware of the great care that Mercy Health provides, but being a patient is totally different. The care and compassion and time they spend with you is so different to experience when you are a patient.”
After her diagnosis, DeLaVega spent two days at Hauenstein Neuroscience Center followed by four months going to physical and occupational therapy. Her ongoing care was through another health system following her TIA, and she recently reconnected with Mercy Health.
“Since my TIA, I’m confident that if I ever need some assistance and support, I know will have the best care at Mercy Health,” she said.
DeLaVega wishes she hadn’t denied her symptoms before her TIA because she continues to have issues with memory and concentration, due to other neurological conditions. “Some days are very good days and others are not. Sometimes I trip because of my left leg, and sometimes I get tongue-tied.” She has also lost some memories permanently.
She explains that in the Spanish-speaking community, people tend to minimize stroke symptoms as something that will go away. “We tend to ignore symptoms because we believe in taking care of our families first, but it is better to be safe,” she explained. “If you have symptoms, see a doctor. High blood pressure is a silent killer. As adults, we must take care of ourselves first so we can take care of others.”
DeLaVega wants readers to remember these facts:
- In the U.S., someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, and nearly every four minutes, someone dies of stroke.
- Always remember the B.E.F.A.S.T. acronym: Balance, Eyes, Face, Arms, Speech and Time.
- High blood pressure, migraine with aura, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, depression and emotional stress are stroke risk factors that tend to be stronger or more common in women than in men.
Now DeLaVega’s primary care doctor is at Mercy Health’s Clinica Santa Maria, where many programs and resources are available in Spanish. “It is a blessing to be in a place where they have the knowledge of our health and our culture,” she said.
“If a Mercy Health doctor asks you to change your lifestyle, you can trust that the doctor has the knowledge to care for you. Mercy Health doctors show compassion for all patients and take care of everyone, like family members. You’re in very good hands.”