Until Feb. 22, 2002, the day Tamika Quinn woke up with the worst headache of her life, she admits to living in ignorance.
A 27-year-old woman couldn’t have a stroke, right? Not a young mother of three who had given birth to a healthy daughter 10 days earlier. Not even one who was overweight and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure like several other family members. It must be a bad migraine.
Yet this headache felt like an elephant sitting on Quinn’s skull, and a few hours later, her field of vision began to shrink. By the time the Chesapeake, Va., woman reached Sentara Norfolk General Hospital that evening, she was speaking incoherently and one side of her face was drooping. She had suffered a serious stroke, and she had a second stroke three days later in the intensive care unit.
Now 42, Quinn is a passionate ambassador for the American Heart Association (AHA), sharing her story to encourage other women — particularly younger African-Americans — to live healthfully, schedule regular doctor’s appointments and know their family medical history.
“I feel like I was bamboozled in a sense, because I always thought the face of stroke looked like our grandmothers,” she says. “I realized I was the face of stroke. I now have a personal responsibility to set the record straight.”
Quinn’s narrative is vital because she has created new diet and exercise habits not only for herself, but also for her family’s next generation, notes Teri Arnold, director of marketing and communications for AHA’s Mid-Atlantic Affiliate. Her family includes a daughter diagnosed with obesity and high cholesterol at age 9.
So many women go about their daily lives and never think they are going to have a heart attack or stroke, especially when they’re younger,” Arnold says. “This was a huge wake-up call for Tamika.”
African-Americans are at higher risk for both heart disease and stroke due to a prevalence of the most common contributing factors: obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Among non-Hispanic blacks age 20 and older, 63 percent of men and 77 percent of women are overweight or obese, according to AHA statistics. High blood pressure also tends to develop earlier in blacks; research suggests some may carry a gene that increases sensitivity to salt.
Growing up in an impoverished section of Philadelphia, Quinn never worried much about her weight because many relatives also were heavy. Her family did try to eat fruits and vegetables, but they had to take two buses to a grocery store with fresh produce. They tended to cook plenty of fried foods and fatty meats. Nobody discussed hypertension because, in Quinn’s opinion, African-Americans often are reluctant to share medical concerns.
Quinn developed high blood pressure while pregnant with her third child. When a doctor prescribed medication, however, Quinn didn’t take it because she felt she was too young. The two strokes paralyzed her left side for months, forcing Quinn to relearn how to walk, talk and tie her shoes. Still, she reverted to old eating habits a few years later.
Then two things happened: Quinn saw a doctor for her migraines and heard she was at risk for another stroke, and she discovered her middle daughter, Cashara, was quickly headed down the same road, even as an elementary-school student.
Together, Quinn and Cashara completed a nutrition course at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., and began regular workouts at the YMCA. They gradually transitioned from whole to skim to almond milk, eliminated beef, pork and sweetened beverages, limited fried foods and bread, and worked to control portion sizes. “We ate using saucers for several months initially because that was the only way to ensure my daughter wasn’t overeating, and at the time it was life or death,” Quinn recalls. Cashara, now 18, lost 40 pounds, lowered her cholesterol and is thriving as a freshman at Hampton University.
Daughter Sequoia, 15, also follows the family health plan, while Quinn is down to one blood pressure medication rather than three.
Quinn came to Hampton Roads via the Navy — she was a Hospital Corpsman for four years — and owns two businesses, one that plans empowerment workshops for women and girls and another that organizes glam spa parties for kids. Also mother to an adult son, Jamir, Quinn has had to function as a single parent for the past six years after losing her 34-year-old husband to thyroid cancer.
While she still deals with some loss of memory and muscle control, Quinn is grateful for her health — and no longer feels bamboozled.
“I don’t want other women to make the same mistakes I did,” she says. “If we’re more educated, we can change things for ourselves and our children, and all the children after that.”