Fayette County

Stroke gives teacher a lesson in heart health — and a mission

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Exterkamp with her class at Picadome Elementary in Lexington. After suffering a stroke about a year ago, she has become an advocate for heart health.
Third-grade teacher Jennifer Exterkamp with her class at Picadome Elementary in Lexington. After suffering a stroke about a year ago, she has become an advocate for heart health. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Most healthy, active 34-year-olds who wake up in the middle of the night to numbness in their hand don’t immediately assume they are having a stroke.

Jennifer Exterkamp certainly didn’t. After shrugging off the numbness and going back to sleep, she awoke the next morning about a year ago to complete loss of feeling in her left side and slurred speech. Her boyfriend, Doug Tackett, rushed her to urgent care, where they were told she needed to be taken to the emergency room immediately.

Unfortunately, Exterkamp wasn’t able to receive tPA treatment, the only FDA approved medical treatment for acute strokes because it had been too long since her symptoms began. Given through an IV, tissue plasminogen activator works to dissolve blood clots and improves blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood during a stroke. If administered within three hours of the first symptoms, it can improve stroke recovery. Exterkamp’s symptoms lasted longer than that.

A vascular surgeon not only confirmed that Exterkamp had suffered a stroke; he also informed her that she had a rare condition called fibromuscular dysplasia, which narrows arteries in the body. In Exterkamp’s case, an artery had narrowed 70 percent on her right side, which required an angioplasty to unblock it.

Exterkamp’s recovery has had its trying moments over the past year, but she said she feels lucky.

“I don’t really have any limitations, and that’s why I feel so blessed,” said Exterkamp, a third-grade teacher and a high school volleyball coach. “I just feel very, very lucky that I’m practically normal.”

Exterkamp labeled the adjustments she’s had to make as “annoyances” more than obstacles. There are times she’ll be walking down the hallways of Picadome Elementary and discover that she has been unknowingly leaving a paper trail of handouts for her class.

But for Exterkamp, dropping papers in the hallway — or forgetting that she’s already wearing the sock she’s looking for — are minor.

“When I think about the damage it could have done, relearning to walk or talk, it hits me really hard that it could have been a lot worse.”

Doctors agreed that she’s lucky she didn’t lose sight in her left eye and that she has completely regained her speech.

Despite the toll that a stroke can take on one’s body and mind, Exterkamp has remained upbeat, her boyfriend said.

“She stayed positive nonstop,” Tackett said. “I don’t think a lot of people could have done that.”

That same positivity was infectious when Exterkamp recently retold her story. Nearly overwhelmed with emotion at times, she discussed facing her own mortality at such a young age, and the inevitable difference that made in her life.

“Sometimes I still struggle thinking that I survived something,” Exterkamp said. “It still messes with my head that I’m a survivor. I don’t feel different, but I am different.”

One change in her life is her involvement in the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign, which emphasizes good heart health.

“Being a part of the Go Red campaign with the luncheon that they had, and meeting some other women that have been through some pretty challenging times with their health, it helped me realize that I can’t be afraid to do what I need to do,” she said.

Exterkamp has learned just how quickly her life can change: “In an instant,” she said. “If I don’t live the way I want to live now, when else am I going to do that? What am I waiting for? For me it’s really simple; it’s making sure that I’m in the classroom and I’m teaching my third-graders. I love teaching. I love coaching.”

Today, that’s exactly what Exterkamp is doing. In addition to teaching, she coaches volleyball at Tates Creek High School, she’s working on being the healthiest version of herself, and she’s doing her part to help raise awareness about the dangers of a stroke and its symptoms.

“I don’t want someone else that’s my age to be blindsided that this happened to them. I think it’s just not ignoring your body. If something isn’t feeling right, if something’s off, go to the doctor.”

Dr. Scott Bridges, one of the first doctors Exterkamp saw after her stroke, suggested that people be aware of the symptoms of stroke that require medical attention: sudden numbness, tingling or weakness on one side of the body, sudden impairment of vision, sudden instability, sudden headache, difficulty speaking, and difficulty understanding what other people are saying.

If you experience any of those symptoms, seek medical attention —the sooner the better, Exterkamp said.

“Recognize the symptoms quickly and not ignoring what your body is trying to tell you,” Exterkamp said. “It’s all about how fast you can get to the hospital and get care. And be knowledgeable that it can be at any age. I don’t think I ever knew that it could happen at 34.”

Cody Daniel: 859-231-1687

It’s Wear Red Day

Today is National Wear Red Day, a part of American Heart Month intended to bring extra attention to heart disease. Many Herald-Leader employees will be wearing red to promote heart health awareness — and our front-page nameplate is red today, too.

On our Facebook page, Facebook.com/kentuckycom, you can enter our Love Your Heart sweepstakes for a chance to win $400 in gift cards to Kroger.

And the Feb. 14 Herald-Leader will include a special section from the American Heart Association full of tips, events and resources.

The city has also declared Friday to be Firefighter Appreciation Day, and citizens are encouraged to wear red and use the hashtag #LoveLexFire to show their support of Lexington's firefighters.

Please join us in wearing red today.