Once thought of as a condition that affects older people – and one that almost always ends in severe disabilities – stroke can happen to anyone. Charu Raheja was a healthy 42-year-old professional when she had a stroke. Keep reading to learn about Charu’s harrowing experience and how it changed her life.

Please tell us your stroke story.

I was in Miami with friends for a birthday celebration and had a really bad headache before dinner. I thought it was probably nothing – just hunger or fatigue – and I ignored it. But when I got to dinner, I started feeling so dizzy that I had to lay down. Some of my friends who were with us were doctors. My husband took me back to the room, where I felt even more nauseous and dizzy. We own a company where nurses evaluate patients over the phone and we knew they would tell me to go to the ER, but I didn’t want to go in a different city for what we all assumed to be a migraine.

We returned home from Miami and I went back to work. I kept thinking my symptoms would go away, but they continued to worsen. After five days, I could barely open my eyes. I finally went to my doctor for a MRI and that’s when they found blood in my head. I was immediately sent to the Mayo Clinic, where they determined that I was having a stroke. That’s how my journey started.

What happened next?

During an angiogram test used to diagnose my stroke, I ended up with a punctured artery which required an emergency stent to be placed. We learned that I had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – 20% of patients with this type of stroke die within 10 minutes. After the stent placement, I was put on blood thinners and spent a month and a half on bed rest. Finally, I was able to have brain surgery.

The surgery took three hours and the doctor thought everything went well, but when I woke up in recovery I was completed paralyzed on my right side. The doctor’s last words to my husband were, “I’m going to try to save whatever I can.” They weren’t sure why I was paralyzed and sent me back to ICU. I don’t have much memory of that time – I couldn’t talk, only mumble, but my husband was at my bedside. I finally moved my thumb a day later and everyone was overjoyed because it meant I would recover.

When I woke up, I had completely forgotten English – I could only speak Portuguese! I had to practice moving my body again and relearn how to talk in English. I still have trouble going down the stairs and my kids complain that I have an accent now, but I know that I am lucky.

How has this experience impacted your life?

Personally, it has made me appreciate life. Every day is precious. If I wake up and I’m alive and my hands and feet move, then nothing else matters. I’m involved with an aneurysm and AVM support group here in Jacksonville and hear the stories about children and young adults who had a stroke and are still paralyzed. I count my blessings every day. I never realized how fragile we really are. As hard as it was to go through my experience, I feel like it has made me a better person.

My stroke changed the whole course of our company as well. As soon as I got better, I started saying, “If this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.” So we started a new branch of our company called Continuwell, which provides 24/7 access to experienced nurses and doctors to help patients diagnose health conditions and receive the appropriate level of care.

May is Stroke Awareness Month. What advice would you give to others?

Don’t ignore headaches. I know so many people who have serious disabilities from a stroke because they ignored their headache and didn’t get help fast enough. If it’s the worst headache of your life, get to your doctor.

Also, you don’t have to be old to have a stroke – I know of a 22-year-old girl who fainted because she had an aneurysm and died just five minutes later. It can happen to anyone, and it happens suddenly. I encourage everyone to learn the signs and symptoms of stroke, the different types of stroke that occur and how you can Act F.A.S.T. to save lives.

F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember the sudden signs of stroke. When you spot these signs, call 911 for help right away.

F – Face – Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A – Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S – Speech – Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

T – Time to Call 911 – If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

How did you get involved with Community Health Charities?

I had just returned to work after my recovery when I went to a Women Business Leaders in Healthcare meeting and met Linda Ireland, who was Chair of the Community Health Charities Board of Directors at that time. She told me about Community Health Charities and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Why should a company partner with them?

Because Community Health Charities is bringing healthcare to people. I love how they vet the charities to make sure they’re doing what they say they are doing – as a business owner, we want to make sure the money we donate is being used properly. I also love how they help employees engage with charities and provide access to local resources for people who need health support. Donating money is great, but when you become a part of something you feel more connected to it. Community Health Charities is an amazing organization and I really want to see it succeed. It fits so well with the mission of my own company – to give people access to an educated health professional.

Now that you have healed, what are your hopes for the future?

We have come so far in terms of learning about new technology and new surgeries for stroke. I hope that we can continue developing new and better techniques. Ten years ago, my surgery would have been open brain and extremely risky – I don’t know if I would be functioning right now. My hope is that we can continue the collaboration between different fields in healthcare to benefit all stroke patients.