By Mary Ashton Mills

 

Concerns over having a healthy baby and child are on the forefront of many parent’s minds today. With so many milestones and checklists, it’s normal to worry that our children will be healthy enough to achieve each goal. We hear about pediatric cancer, chromosomal abnormalities, SIDS and many more health-related disorders and events, but stroke doesn’t regularly cross our minds when thinking about our children.

Yes, pediatric stroke occurs in 11 out of every 100,000 children per year, according to the National Stroke Association. When someone has a stroke either the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or a blood vessel in the brain bursts causing blood to spill into the spaces around the brain cells. This short event can cause serious repercussions affecting development for years to come.

Stroke can happen to unborn babies, newborns, children and teenagers in addition to adults and the elderly. While we would much rather be focused on our children’s happy times, enjoying each life achievement, it is important to recognize the stroke risk factors and warning signs and hope that having the knowledge and not needing it will apply to our own family.

An Unseen Stroke

For Martinez resident Ashlyn Fox, mother of 8-year-old Hagen Fox, the warning signs were not early enough. Fox, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse for over 10 years, has seen her share of sick babies. When she gave birth to her son Hagen, it was apparent that something was wrong and she later learned he suffered a stroke in-utero. “When he was approximately seven hours old, he turned dusky in the nursery and was rushed to the NICU where he was placed on the ventilator. The following day he began having visible seizures, which led to a CT scan and MRI being done and it was determined that he’d had a stroke,” says Fox.

After doctors at the University hospital NICU were able to diagnose the stroke, they treated him with medication. Early on, he was weaned from all medication and he has never missed a developmental milestone. He walked on his 1st birthday and has always been treated normally—just like his older sister. Hagen still attends occupational therapy to help him overcome a slight right-side weakness, but other than that there are no apparent signs that something happened before he took his first breath, while in the comfort and safety of his mother’s womb.

Fox would like for others to know not to give up if their child receives a diagnosis similar to the one she and her son received eight years ago. “We were told he may never walk or talk or do anything on his own,” says Fox as she proudly reports of Hagen’s many sports accomplishments. “He plays basketball through UPWARD, soccer and football.  He is our miracle!”

Risk Factors and Symptoms

Since strokes not only occur in the elderly, it is crucial to know the warning signs and risk factors. Males, children under 2 years old and African-Americans are at a greater risk for stroke. Some causes of stroke in children are different than the standard adult risk factors like high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Risk factors include:

•    Congenital heart defects
•    Sickle-cell disease
•    Immune disorders
•    Diseases of the arteries
•    Abnormal blood clotting
•    Head or neck trauma
•    Maternal history of infertility
•    Maternal infection in the fluid surrounding an unborn baby
•    Premature rupture of membrane during
pregnancy
•    Pregnancy related high blood pressure in the mother
Knowing stroke symptoms can help you to identify a stroke in children.
•   For newborns and infants, seizures, extreme sleepiness and using one side of the body more than the other can be warning signs.
•   As children get older, severe, sudden onset of headaches, vomiting, numbness, sleepiness, dizziness and loss of balance or coordination are symptoms.

Please note: Children are going to experience headaches and vomiting at some point in their lives, therefore we should exercise caution before running to the doctor if we notice one of these symptoms.

Treatment for Stroke Patients

Lisa Rhodes, senior occupational therapist with Pediatric Rehabilitation at Children’s Hospital of Georgia says that treating all three disciplines—speech, occupational and physical therapy—provides patients with a more holistic healing method. First, she recommends treating the patient immediately following their discharge from the hospital. In many cases that doesn’t happen, but the sooner they can begin, the better the results they will see. “We like to strike while the iron is hot,” says Rhodes.  They work with all levels of stroke victims at Pediatric Rehabilitation.

“Physical therapy helps with mobility concerns, occupational therapy addresses functional independence on daily activities and speech therapy treats the ability to verbally express and process language,” says Rhodes. Each patient’s level of deficit will be addressed and goals will be set. They will be evaluated at the six-month mark and they will see what goals were met, how the child compensates for their disability and they will continue to develop strategies for the child. Sometimes walking, talking and speaking are mastered, but simple skills like using a computer, operating a vending machine or activities that require other fine motor skills need to be taught.

On a positive note, children who are victims of stroke are more likely to recover than adults because their brains are still developing and have the ability to recover better after injury.

Though currently there is no stroke support group in Augusta, May is National Pediatric Stroke Awareness Month. If you are interested in starting a local support group, please contact Ashlyn Fox at ashycott@comcast.net. Sometimes placing people together who have similar life experiences can be the best support system of all. If you would like more information on pediatric stroke, visit Stroke.org.

 

Mary Ashton Mills lives in Augusta with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Charleston Magazine, The Post and Courier and Augusta Family Magazine.

This article appears in the May-June 2015 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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