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After My Stroke at Age 20, I Want to Help Other Women F.A.S.T.

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I didn't know I had a heart defect let alone that it would cause a stroke. Now I have a device implanted in my heart to repair the birth defect that nearly took my life at age 20.

My heart story began on a sunny Sunday in the early 1990s when I was born with two heart abnormalities: an Atrial Septal Aneurysm (ASA) and a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO). An ASA is a weakened wall between two heart chambers; and a PFO happens when a heart valve fails to close after birth. Unfortunately, these defects remained unbeknownst to me until the unthinkable happened 20 years later. Without warning, a blood clot traveled through the PFO and made its way to my brain and blocked a major artery. I thought I was a healthy college student until the defects teamed together and caused a stroke. When I was rushed to the emergency room on the afternoon of September 12, 2010, I was not quickly diagnosed even though I had the classic stroke symptoms of slurred speech, one-sided weakness, and an excruciatingly painful headache. No one thinks a 20-year-old can have a stroke. Crucial treatment hours were lost in transferring me from one hospital to another. As a result, doctors performed a hemicraniectomy and removed a large section of my skull in a grave effort to save my life.

The entire left side of my body was paralyzed, leaving me a hemiplegic at only 20 years old. My biggest fear was that I would be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. The moment I began physical therapy and realized I could one day walk again, I mustered the strength to start my biggest battle yet -- the fight to take back my life! I told myself, "Tia, you will get out of this wheelchair!" True to my words, I transitioned from my wheelchair to a hemi-walker where I stayed for some time and kept fighting, never giving up. I slowly graduated from the hemi-walker to a quad-cane, then to a single-point cane, and eventually to no cane at all -- just using my own two feet! But, my determination did not stop there. On the one-year anniversary of my stroke, I walked a 5K race. My mother followed me with my wheelchair, begging me to sit down, but I refused to stop walking or take a break. I had to finish the race! Of course, I came in last place, but that did not matter to me. Crossing the finish line is what was most important. I was just proud to be walking again. I have since completed five 5K races and I gladly participate in several other races each year. Since suffering the stroke, I have undergone seven surgeries and continue to endure extensive, aggressive rehabilitative therapy.

I Go Red for Women because the importance of stroke awareness is very dear to my heart as it should be for all women! I was born with heart defects which I couldn't prevent, but many women can prevent heart disease and stroke. I want all women to know how important it is to take care of their health!

As a young stroke survivor, I can attest that a stroke can strike at any age. Therefore, I want everyone -- people of all ages -- to know the stroke warning signs. The simplest way to remember is with the word F.A.S.T. F stands for face drooping, A stands for arm weakness, S stands for speech difficulty, and T stands for time to call 911. Remember, "... time lost is brain lost" so you have to get to the hospital F.A.S.T.!

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of National Wear Red Day (Feb. 7, 2014), the aim of which is to raise awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. To read all the stories in the series, click here. And to follow the conversation on Twitter -- and share a picture of yourself wearing red -- find the hashtag #RedSelfie.