At the age of 19, Aeriona Ervolina looked like the picture of health. An avid runner and former high school track-and-field athlete, she never imagined she was at risk of having a stroke.
"I had high blood pressure, but I thought I could overcome it through diet and exercise," she said. "I didn't know the impact it was having on my body."
Unable to afford the beta blocker her doctor had prescribed for her hypertension, Ervolina stopped taking it when she ran out of the medication. A few weeks later, she was on her way to class at Florida International University when she began feeling hot and sweaty.
"It's a feeling I'll never forget," said Ervolina, now 32. "I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and had a terrible headache."
She had barely made it inside the school's health center when she collapsed from a stroke.
"I was lucky it happened in a medical facility," Ervolina said. "If I had been home, I might have laid there for hours without oxygen getting to my brain."
Strokes occur when bloodflow to the brain is blocked by blood clots or build-up of plaque inside blood vessels. Once a health issue attributed mostly to the elderly, it is occurring more and more often in young adults.
According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stroke hospitalization rates for 15- to 44-year-olds increased 37 percent between 1995 and 2008. In South Carolina, 49 percent of diagnosed strokes occur in patients younger than 65.
"It's an emerging health crisis driven by the epidemic of hypertension, diabetes and obesity," said Amy Edmunds, a stroke survivor and founder of YoungStroke, an advocacy organization for adults ages 20 to 64 who have experienced a stroke. "Most people don't connect the dots between those health issues and stroke."
Faced with a growing number of young stroke patients, Beaufort Memorial Hospital has teamed up with YoungStroke to present the first stroke expo in the area. The free event takes place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 21 at Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort.
"The effects of stroke are often life changing for both the survivor and their families," said Kathy Campbell, director of the in-patient rehab unit at the hospital. "Our goal is to offer young stroke survivors information, resources and tools they can use to thrive after stroke, and to help caregivers understand how to support their loved ones."
The expo will include presentations by Edmunds, neurologist Dr. Paul Mazzeo, internist Dr. Philip Cusumano and Greg Gilbert of the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. In one break-out session, a panel of four stroke survivors and a caregiver will discuss their experiences and how they cope with life after stroke.
Among them is Ervolina, who had her stroke in 1999. Although she recovered with no long-term physical disabilities, she is at an increased risk of a having a second stroke.
"I still have high blood pressure, but I'm well aware of what can happen if I don't keep it under control," said Ervolina, now the mother of a 2-year-old girl. "I want to be around for a long time."