Emily Block was born with a hole in her heart. The biology junior has survived three strokes before the age of 20.
Her first stroke numbed the right side of her face and arm and the second stroke left Block with a visual distortion so severe that she couldn’t read. After her third stroke at age 19, she encountered problems with balance, blood pressure and heart rate.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to have a stroke. I had no clue because I didn’t think that someone in their late teens could have a stroke,” she said.
Block was unaware that the incidents were related until she was diagnosed with a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) by, Dr. Ralston at the Cal Poly Health Center. The condition is an opening between the two atria chambers in the heart which has been linked to strokes. The hole, Block said, created turbulence in the blood flowing to her heart which caused blood clots to enter her brain.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the Health Center was the best place I could have gone; they really started the ball rolling with my diagnosis and treatment. The Health Center at Cal Poly is phenomenal,” she said.
Dr. James Joye, a cardiologist in Mountain View, Calif confirmed that Block was suffering from strokes. She was later diagnosed with dysautonomia, a disease which effects the autonomic nervous system, by Dr. Yan-Go, a cardiologist at UCLA Medical Center.
“While sitting, standing or walking, my heart rate goes up to what a normal person’s would be when they’re jogging or even sprinting, so I’m often out of breath and tired because my body feels like it’s running a race constantly,” she said.
The hole in Block’s heart was fixed through a medical procedure, which she said was simple because of improvements in technology. Block’s heart now functions normally and she hasn’t had a stroke since.
Block has been in physical therapy, regaining strength in the left side of her body and significantly repairing many of the side-effects the strokes produced.
“I monitor myself and it gets easier to manage. Even though I’m already better than my doctors thought I would be, I’m optimistic and hopeful that I will still continue to improve. I have wonderful support and encouragement from my doctors, friends and family,” she said.
Her disease has not set her back. Last April she traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for legislation to increase funds for heart disease and stroke research and treatment after earning a scholarship to join 464 others during American Heart Association (AHA) Lobby Day.
Megan Lara, the grassroots director for the AHA, orginally informed Block about the Lobby Day. She said that Block really puts a face to the issues by talking with legislators about her personal story.
“It’s volunteers like Emily who take the time to reach out to our legislators who make a difference,” Lara said. “To have someone say, ‘I survived because of research that was done and because I have this pre-existing condition; I may not have health care in the future’ effects our legislators. They really put a face to our issues.”
Advocates asked legislators to sign a letter to the president to increase the funding given to the National Institute of Health, which allocates federal funding to heart disease and stroke research. Advocates also pushed for adequate, accessible and affordable health care.
Block has advocated for her cause at a local level also.
Block helped plan and run the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart Walk in San Luis Obispo. Being one of the few young survivors involved in the area, she said, gave her the opportunity to help raise awareness and funds for research through various functions on a local level.
It was really nice for a young person to see an older stroke survivor being successful Block said, because it shows that having heart problems doesn’t prevent you from accomplishing your goals.
“Meeting people and coming together, sharing personal stories and relating to each other was a wonderful experience. It is something I will definitely remember,” she said. “It is inevitable that another young person will have my same or similar condition. My hope is that in the future, the whole thing will be completely prevented; they will find they’re at risk for a stroke long before they have one, they’ll get the proper treatment and they can live life accomplishing their goals without a barrier of health problems.”