A 23-year-old paramedic has suffered a stroke after a “neck crack” went wrong. She is now sharing her one-in-a-million story to raise awareness of strokes in young people.
The incident happened on March 4 when Natalie Kunicki, an employee of the London Ambulance Service (LAS), was enjoying an evening in with a friend watching movies.
While in front of the TV, she strained her neck and heard a loud “crack”, as did her friend, but assumed that it was nothing. She went to bed “tipsy”, and when she woke up 15 minutes later, she realized that something was seriously wrong when she was unable to walk after losing control of her left leg.
Natalie struggles to move after rupturing her vertebral artery:
She was rushed to hospital in the early hours of March 5. There, a CT scan revealed that she had suffered a stroke after unknowingly rupturing the vertebral artery in her spine. This triggered a brain clot which led to a stroke.
The 24-year-old, who is originally from Canberra, Australia, moved to England in December 2017 to fulfill her dream of being a paramedic, Kennedy News and Media reports.
“People need to know that even if you’re young, something this simple can cause a stroke. I wasn’t even trying to crack my neck. I just moved and it happened,” she said.
“I’m a paramedic and I didn’t ring 999 for 10 minutes because I thought it was too unlikely it would be a stroke when I should have known much better,” Natalie continued. “Every minute more of your brain cells are dying, so don’t ever discount a stroke just because someone is young.”
She then explained the risk which gym bunnies are at of a similar incident happening to them:
“People need to be more mindful when doing any chiropractic exercises or strenuous gym weights. I was in bed watching stuff with a friend when it happened.
“I stretched my neck and I could just hear this ‘crack, crack, crack’. My friend asked ‘was that your neck?’ but all my joints crack quite a bit so I didn’t think anything of it. I just laughed.
“I fell asleep and when I woke up about 15 minutes later. I wanted to go to the bathroom but I could feel this leg in the bed and I was asking my friend if he could move his leg.
“He told me it was my leg but I was a bit tipsy so I wasn’t taking anything seriously and just thought ‘that’s a bit weird’. I got up and tried to walk to the bathroom and I was swaying everywhere. I looked down and realised I wasn’t moving my left leg at all – then I fell to the floor.”
To put how slim the chances of a young person having a stroke are into context, Everyday Health reports that seven to 15 people in every 100,000 under 45 will suffer one.
This is because stroke risk factors like high blood pressure are so closely liked to age.
After discovering that she had suffered a stroke, the 23-year-old said that she went into a state of shock that lasted three days:
“When the consultant told me I’d had a stroke I was in shock.
“The doctors told me later that just that stretching of my neck had caused my vertebral artery to rupture. It was just spontaneous and there’s a one in a million chance of it happening.
“I don’t smoke, I don’t really drink, I don’t have any family history of strokes so it’s quite strange it happened to me when I was just moving in bed.
“I was in shock for about three days in ICU. I was a bit of a wet blanket. I didn’t really say much and I wasn’t engaging with anyone. I had no sense of humor.
“I was just completely shut off, trying to compute what had happened. People said I was a bit like a robot and didn’t show much emotion.”
However, with a little help from her friends, Natalie was able to begin her journey to recovery:
“But a couple of my friends from the ambulance service told me, ‘You have a week from the day of your stroke to snap out of this or we will snap you out of it.’
“I was able to have my little pity party for a week but that’s it. They told me, ‘What’s done is done now – just work and do all the exercises.’
“They were fantastic and they would come in and do all the exercises with me. I think if I didn’t have them I would have been in my pity party quite a bit longer but instead, I smashed through all the therapy goals.
“I just love my job and I want to get back to it. I’m so used to being busy and now I feel like I’m climbing the walls a bit. I definitely want to get back to work as soon as I can.”
She also explained that while her friends were instrumental in helping to get her out of the shock she experienced, they were also the reason that she was reluctant to call the emergency services when she first suspected something was wrong.
“I was trying to call 999 but I was dithering about it,” Natalie said. “There was a high chance the crew who turned up would be my friends and I didn’t want them to see me tipsy. I tried to go back to sleep but I couldn’t, so I called 999 and I didn’t recognize the crew who turned up.”
“I think they did look at me at first like they thought I was just a classic drunk 23-year-old but I told them I was a paramedic and I knew something was wrong.
“They took my blood pressure and heart rate and they were both sky high. Then they did this test where they hold their finger in the air and you have to touch your nose then their finger. My hand went all over the place and I was thinking ‘oh no’. I knew something was going down.”
After being taken to the hospital, Natalie then had to have emergency surgery. This involved repairing the burst artery with a stent. It is believed that the clot left in her brain will drain itself in time.
“I expected to wake up from this miracle surgery and everything would be fixed but my mobility was worse and they couldn’t clear the clot. At the start I couldn’t move my thumb and forefinger. I could kind of move my wrist up and down. I couldn’t lift my arm. I could bend my left leg but I couldn’t wiggle my toes,” she said.
“The doctors would do tests – I had to close my eyes and they would touch my left side but I couldn’t tell where they were touching. It was like when you have really bad sunburn and your skin is sizzling. I felt that all down my left side.
“I think I scared my consultant because after I woke up, she came in to ask how I was going – but I told her, ‘You should have killed me.’ Depression is really common after a stroke because you lose so much of your independence and your dignity.
“I had to have a nurse help me shower in a wheelchair. What 23-year-old needs someone to help them shower and wash their hair? It was just a bit surreal.”
Thankfully, less than two months later, Natalie is feeling “much better”. She has now moved back in with her parents, who also live in London, and said that this has helped her to recover faster.
She is hoping to be back to “light duty” as a paramedic within the next six months to a year.
“I was scared at first about being discharged, because my parents’ home has lots of stairs and I didn’t know how I was going to manage, but it’s gone well. I’ve recovered movement in my left side. I can walk but not for more than five minutes. I’m really clumsy. I can’t do up buttons, I find it too difficult. I can feel hot and cold now but I still feel a bit numb,” she said.
“Being discharged and at my parents’ is definitely helping with my recovery because I had to do things for myself. I have to get dressed, make the bed and I can go to make a cup of tea. I’m definitely doing something right but it’s slow going.
“It has been strange being on the other side but the ambulance crew who came out to me were amazing. They did a perfect job. They even stayed with me to hold my hand while I waited for my parents and blue-lighted me to the other hospital for my surgery, even though their shift had ended.”
In addition to getting back to work as soon as possible, Natalie is hoping that by sharing her story, it will increase awareness of strokes in young people. While the odds are slim, she is living proof that they can and do happen – and the causes can be extremely innocuous.
“I have been called out to so many people having strokes and they’re always in their 70s or 80s. I have never been to a young person having a stroke. Mine was one in a million but a ruptured vertebral artery is actually quite a common cause of strokes in young people,” she said.
“They will be in the gym or doing something quite physical and it happens. Strokes are also quite common in kids. It was a shock for me. I thought as a professional I would have an idea but even I didn’t know. Normally if you’re called out to a young person, you wouldn’t do a test for a stroke.”
Natalie’s parents, however, Peter, 65, and Anne, 62, are moving back to Australia in July. Her brother, Michael, 33, has set up a GoFundMe in a bid to help his sister raise the funds she needs to stay in London and return to work.
“When I woke up from surgery my brother told me he’d set up a fundraising page and all my friends and colleagues have been sharing it. Eighty percent of the donations are from people I work with which means so much. It’s going to be so helpful,” she said.
“I really want to get back in my own flat and I really don’t want to have to move back to Australia. I love my work too much and I don’t want to leave them.”
If you would like to donate to Natalie’s GoFundMe, you can do so here.