Vivian King is shown with her book titled “When the Words Suddenly Stopped: Finding my Voice Again After a Massive Stroke.” (Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Something felt off that morning — Oct. 25, 2013 — as Vivian King drove to a Girl Scouts’ breakfast. As she mingled at the event, people kept asking if she was OK.
She remembers taking one bite of sausage — and that’s the last thing she remembers.
She lost the next 10 hours. When King woke up, she was in the hospital.
King, a former WTMJ-TV anchor and reporter who now runs the media consulting business Vivian L. King Connections LLC, was one of roughly 795,000 people to have strokes every year. The stroke temporarily took away her power of speech but gave King a new perspective that she wanted to share. She has done that in a new book — “When the Words Suddenly Stopped: Finding My Voice Again After a Massive Stroke” — which describes her ordeal and what other women could learn from her experience. It’s a finalist in the health category of the Author Elite Awards.
Based on her symptoms, neuroscientist and stroke specialist Dr. Gregory Bix said that King’s stroke likely occurred in the middle cerebral artery, the area of the brain that affects speech and language.
He said King was lucky that she was not alone when it occurred.
“For ischemic strokes, they say time is brain so the sooner that you get to an emergency room … the better,” he said. “You lose two million neurons a minute and your brain is very sensitive to restricted oxygen.”
King discussed the stroke and its aftermath and the new book.
Question: What was the recovery process like?
King: In the book, I talk about having the three Ps: having a posse, persistence and prayer. I am a faithful person and prayer is an important part of my life and so many people prayed for me. Not just my family and friends immediately who were around, but their family and friends. I had a therapist and two nurses who had cared for me throughout. I could understand TV and the things people were telling me, but my mind blocked out that I had been a reporter. I wasn’t even thinking, how ironic that the thing that I use — my voice — is the thing that is impacted here.
Q: Experiencing a stroke and going through the recovery process is rough. What got you through it?
King: I’m a single woman and I don’t have immediate family throughout the area. My faith, family and friends, they helped lead me from trauma to triumph. They called themselves my sisters. … They were my posse.
Q: The stroke occurred in 2013. What prompted you to want to write a book?
King: I had just left Aurora Healthcare. Aurora was merging with another health care system, and they were reorganizing and it was coming up on my fifth anniversary. And I remember thinking, “There’s more that I want to do in my life.” And I had been thinking about wanting to write a book, not necessarily on this topic. One morning, I said my prayers and got ready and as I was leaving the house, I said, “You know God, I really need some substantial time with means to write my book.” Because I was too tired and too busy to come home and write after work. But then with the merger, I got the opportunity.
Q: What was your biggest motivator for writing the book?
King: I was shocked by the cause of my stroke, and I did not really find out the cause until my last day in the hospital, until discharge day. My doctor was telling me that I needed to do outpatient therapy after a while and I said, “Well, what about my birth control?” And he looked at me with a horrified look and said, “No, you can’t take those anymore.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “We think they’re the reason you had the stroke.” The birth control pills caused a blood clot on the left side of my brain in a part of the brain that controls speech, and I couldn’t talk for three and a half weeks because it bled out and killed all those brain cells.
Q: How did you gather material for the book?
King: I interviewed a bunch of people. Different people were saying you may want to interview this person because they were around. I found out so many different things. I utilized my journalism skills and interviewing to really fill in the gaps of what happened to me. Everybody has different memories. I really think it is very accurate because I interviewed 22 people. It was really cathartic (but) it was strange because a lot of people hadn’t told me things until I asked.
Q: What do you hope women take away from the book?
King: The main reason I wrote the book was to get the dialogue out there on the connection between strokes and birth control pills. I had thought that, “Well, I’ve taken them before and I had not had any issue,” so I didn’t read the fine print. When I do tell this story, there are young people who have said they were taking birth control pills but it made them feel a certain way and they stopped — which is probably good. And the problem is there is not a lot of research out there on birth control pills and their relationship to stress.
Q: What health care advice would you give women?
King: We get busy, we think we know everything and we may go to the emergency room at the last minute for things and by then, it’s so late if there have been signs before. I think that we know what is normal for us. And if there’s even a funny difference, jot that down and make sure that you really — even if it’s a free clinic — make sure that you are having some kind of annual checkup. You need to write down the things that may be different, even if it’s something slight. If you notice something, go to urgent care and if there’s an issue they will make sure you will get to the right place. We just need to be more diligent, not only about our physical health but our mental health. So I think (my stroke) reminded me that you need to slow down and smell the roses if you will.
Q: Tell me about being a finalist for the Author Elite Awards and what comes next.
King: I felt thrilled. I was chosen in the first round, everybody is on pins and needles because they do it live online, and you’re just waiting for your name to be called. I’m super happy that I was called and I’m a top finalist. In the second round, you have to do a speech at the conference and because it’s virtual, you had to send in a 90-second promo for your book. So I sent mine in and I’m waiting.
For more information on strokes
If you believe you or someone else may be experiencing a stroke, call 911.
The acronym FAST may help you remember what the symptoms look like on others: Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to dial 911.
If you are experiencing a stroke, you may feel the following symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health: trouble with vision; difficulty walking or experiencing dizziness and a lack of coordination; sudden multiple headaches; sudden confusion, difficulty speaking and understanding people; and weakness/numbness on the face, arm, leg or on one side of the body.
Bix said that women who use oral contraceptives for a long period of time and have preexisting conditions — such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and “transient ischemic attacks” (also referred to as TIAs, or mini-strokes) — or cardiovascular conditions and smoke cigarettes are at a higher risk for stroke.
Bix, who is director of a clinical neuroscience research center at Tulane University focused on stroke therapies, said that the combined use of a “tissue plasminogen activator” — or TPA — a clot-busting agent with a mechanical thrombectomy (manual removal of the clot through an artery) has been one of the most effective ways to reduce the aftereffects of a stroke.
“This is an incredibly effective therapy and it’s one of the most effective in medicine,” he said.
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