Michelle Ballasiotes looks like an average, healthy 8-year-old. "If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with her," says her mother, Mary Kay Ballasiotes of Bolingbrook.
Michelle has a brace on her right leg and some weakness on the right side of her body. But they are the only physical signs she suffered a prenatal stroke at 29 weeks.
About six in 100,000 children under the age of 10 suffer strokes each year, according to Dr. Mark Wainwright, a neurologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Five to 10 percent die and more than half of the survivors develop some physical or mental problem, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Strokes are a top 10 cause of death in children. Still, Wainwright says, pediatricians and emergency room staff generally do not check for stroke because it’s rare.
Stroke advocacy and support groups are trying to raise awareness because earlier treatment improves a child’s chances of recovery.
"It makes a tremendous difference because the earlier you get in there and work to rewire the parts of the brain that have been affected, so much the better," says Ballasiotes, the founder of the support group Childhood Stroke & Hemiplegia Connections.
A stroke occurs when the flow of oxygen to any part of the brain is disrupted, killing tissue and causing brain function loss. While there are a variety of causes, in almost one-third of cases, no one knows why it happened.
Stroke symptoms are similar in both adults and children: weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, inability to focus, understand speech or speak, headaches and vomiting. But it is harder to detect in infants and young children who are not yet speaking.
Strokes can be treated in children and adults —but the earlier the better. Options include physical, speech and occupational therapy.
Michelle Ballasiotes’ stroke was diagnosed at 3 months, so she started therapy early. She’s written her story and says: "Sometimes people don’t let me do stuff because of my brace, or they don’t think I can do it. That makes me feel sad. I want to try everything. I don’t want people to think I can’t do something just because I wear a brace or have a weak right side."
Farah Mohd Alkaf