Appearances can be deceiving.
It’s a lesson that Patty Petrula Clark has learned firsthand over the last five years.
At age 43, Patty was in the best shape of her life. On a daily basis, the Paramus wife and mother was at the gym, training to compete in her first-ever triathlon.
But on Feb. 20, 2014, her health took a turn for the worst.
That evening, Patty and her husband, Christopher, were working out at HackensackUMC Fitness & Wellness in Maywood when she wound up having a Grade Four brain aneurysm.
Though Patty can’t recall much of the episode, she does remember the sensation.
“It felt like thunder crashing in my head and then I collapsed,” she said.
After being rushed via ambulance to Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, Patty suffered a stroke. She remained hospitalized for the next 25 days, a period that included several surgeries. When she was released on March 17, 2014, Patty began physical rehabilitation.
Now 48, Patty has made significant progress in her recovery, returning to her job in leadership development at KPMG in Montvale that July. She’s also back in the gym, hoping to participate in a half-marathon and compete in a triathlon.
“I am feeling as good as I possibly can,” Patty said. “But, when it all happened, I couldn’t believe it. I almost got angry. Here I was thinking I had been doing all the right things. I was also in disbelief. I couldn’t understand why it happened to me.”
Though, Patty admits she was not as diligent about one aspect of her health as she could have been, which, doctors believe, is a big factor in her stroke.
“The only indicator for me is that I had high blood pressure,” she said. “I was on medication for it, but it didn’t seem to be the right dosage. For some reason, that day my blood pressure skyrocketed.”
Though she had been on medication for a few years for high blood pressure, Patty admitted she didn’t follow up with her doctor to make sure the prescription was the right dosage.
“I was trying to get myself healthy and training for a tri, I felt like I was doing the right things,” she said. “After a few years of taking the same dosage, I didn’t follow up or sometimes I’d miss a pill. It was stupid of me.”
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, claiming a life about every 80 seconds.
Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only about 54 percent of women recognize that it is their number one killer.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are key contributors to heart disease and about 49 percent of Americans have at least one of these three risk factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
About 30 percent of adults have elevated blood pressure, which is not only a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure, but also kidney disease.
Patty is now using her experience to encourage other women to take control of their health before it’s too late.
On April 11, Patty served as the keynote speaker at the 10th Annual Northern NJ Go Red for Women Luncheon. This year’s event was held at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange.
The organization’s cornerstone event aims to increase awareness about cardiovascular disease, as well as raise funds to support research and educational initiatives.
For more than a decade, the Go Red campaign has encouraged women to learn the warning signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke, visit their doctor regularly and learn their family history.
“Patty’s story is significant because a lot of people don’t think that strokes and aneurysms happen to younger people, especially healthy, young women,” said Stacy Quinn, Northern NJ Go Red for Women Luncheon chair. “I met Patty at her first Go Red luncheon and was inspired by her bravery and passion to use her story to make a difference in the world.”
Quinn, also a stroke survivor and longtime Go Red volunteer, said, “Our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends are at risk. Heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths among women each year – more than all cancers combined. Fortunately, we can change that because 80 percent of cardiac and stroke events may be prevented with education and action.”
“As survivors of stroke, Patty and I want women in our community to be more aware of their heart and brain health,” Quinn said.
Though Patty has been an ambassador for the campaign, this was her first time speaking at a Go Red luncheon and she was admittedly a little nervous to take the podium before a big crowd. But, Patty believes her message is important.
Even if someone appears healthy, there may be an underlying condition, which is why self-care is key, she said.
“When people see me now, they almost don’t believe I had a stroke. When it happened, I was very young and didn’t fit the typical profile people think of when they hear about strokes. But then I tell people, there’s no discrimination with strokes. It was the same thing with Luke Perry [, an actor best known for his starring role in ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’] – he was only 52 [when he died on March 4 after suffering a massive stroke],” Patty said.
“The better care you can give yourself, the better outcome,” she said. “Now that it’s happened, I am so on top of every single thing I have to do. I keep a log of when I went [to the doctor], how often I have to go and what I have to do. I’m really organized now. My doctors tell me they wish they had more patients like me. I have truly taken control of my health and gone above and beyond to live a healthy life.”
Her recovery has been a multi-year process that included rehabilitation, regular follow-ups with doctors every six to 12 months and annual brain scans.
Patty has also resumed working out at the gym five to six days a week, following a meal plan created by a nutritionist and learning her body’s limits.
Her ability to bounce back, she believes, can be largely attributed to her lifestyle prior to the stroke.
“I think that has made a significant difference. If I was a smoker, there is no way I would have gotten through it the way that I did,” she said.
Her husband, Chris, said, “As I watched Patty fight through the darkest days in the hospital and then her rehab, she never gave up and pushed herself to get stronger and healthier. The past five years have been truly amazing how far she has come. She is an inspiration and motivation for everyone.”
He added, “As a mother and wife, we all look up to her because she turned something so awful into a positive thing and is now giving back.”
It also helped having such a great support system of family, friends and the community, Patty said.
After getting divorced in 2007, the River Edge native and her daughter Shea, 13, moved to Paramus. A few years later, Patty married Chris, who also has a daughter, 19-year-old Cameron.
During her recovery, the family saw just how tight knit Paramus can be, with fundraiser efforts and volunteers dropping off dinners at their house.
“For such a big town, everyone really does rally for each other. It’s pretty amazing, the whole town pulls for you,” she said.
Though regaining “a sense of normalcy” has been a goal of Patty’s, but her daughters are what motivated her the most.
“I want to let them know I was a fighter and I am a fighter. I want to set an example that we all have bad days. It’s ok. You get knocked down, but you get back up.”
By Kimberly Redmond
Photos courtesy the American Heart Association