Her 2-year-old niece noticed something wrong while video chatting. It was a mini-stroke.

Dawn Turnage, transient ischemic attack survivor. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Turnage)

Exhausted at the end of a day’s work, Dawn Turnage dropped into a comfortable chair on her patio to soak up the sun before going to bed early.

His phone rang. It was a FaceTime call from her sister, April Washington.

Washington was calling because her 2-year-old daughter, Naomi, wanted to talk to “Aunty Dawn” — or “TeTe,” as the girl calls her.

As much as Turnage enjoyed chatting with his niece, the timing was terrible. She had felt so devastated when she came home from work that she called a friend to make sure she wouldn’t fall asleep.

For more than a week, Turnage had been struggling with extreme exhaustion and incessant headaches. During the day, she drank sodas, hoping they would lift her up and lessen the pain in her head. They did not do it.

She too had dropped things and her vision had deteriorated. Sometimes her computer screen was blurry or too dark. She ordered an anti-glare screen and planned to have her vision checked.

Turnage blamed his problems on a stressful schedule. At the time, she had two jobs, one during the week with the housing authority in Columbus, Ohio, and on weekends with the Department of Parks and Recreation in Westerville. (She has since moved to Youngstown.) The stress led her to overeat and she had gained weight – something else she blamed for her fatigue. She knew that the extra weight was not helping to control the high blood pressure she had been diagnosed with a year before.

This week, however, his mantra was, “I gotta go all the way. I gotta go all the way.”

So she could surely endure a few minutes of conversation with her niece.

“TeTe, why is your face twisted?” Naomi asks.

“What do you mean?” Turnage asked.

Naomi asked again, pointing to the screen.

Washington, a medical assistant, heard her daughter and went to see for herself. Sure enough, the right side of Turnage’s mouth was angled downward, making his face look lopsided. Considering Turnage’s high blood pressure and other issues, Washington feared his sister might have a stroke. Her husband called their other sister, Damika Withers, who lived near Turnage, to help her.

Turnage – who did not have the slurred speech that is common with a stroke – insisted they go to emergency care. There, Turnage learned that she likely suffered from Bell’s palsy, which can cause temporary facial weakness.

Withers texted the information to Washington. She then called the clinic to make sure they knew the full story, including all of Turnage’s recent issues. Given this new information, the doctor reconsidered the diagnosis. He told Turnage she might have a stroke.

“I just got tired, that’s all,” Turnage said. She was only 44 years old. For her, a stroke happened to the elderly.

Turnage was taken by ambulance to hospital. After running tests, doctors told her that she had had several TIAs or transient ischemic attacks. These occur when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain for a short time.

Everyone at the hospital told Turnage how lucky she was to have no lasting complications from “mini-strokes,” which can be a warning sign of a full-blown stroke.

Turnage took it as a red flag.

“I kept thinking about what could have happened and thanking God for still being there,” she said. “I felt like that was it. I need to take better care of myself.”

It was in 2015.

Right away, she changed her diet and started walking regularly. She quickly began to lose weight.

In 2018, she took a position as head of the parks and recreation department in Youngstown, Ohio, becoming the first African-American woman from her hometown to hold that title. Although the work is demanding, the pace is more manageable than his previous workload of two jobs.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turnage ditched her exercise routine. Last summer, she renewed her efforts to exercise, including indoor cycling classes twice a week, and started making healthier meal choices. Since self-care is important to her, she gets a massage twice a month and makes sure she gets enough sleep.

Dawn Turnage teaches indoor cycling lessons twice a week.  (Photo courtesy of Dawn Turnage)
Dawn Turnage teaches indoor cycling lessons twice a week. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Turnage)

“I’m trying to listen to my body, and it started going, ‘Dawn, you’re on the wrong track,'” she said. “I never want to go back to this place again.”

She also has a mission to educate others, especially underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The prevalence of high blood pressure among black people in the United States is among the highest in the world, according to American Heart Association Statistics. They have disproportionately higher rates of more severe hypertension and it develops earlier in life – statistics related to historical and systemic factors.

“It’s important to me that the African American community be aware of their health,” she said. “They need to be screened and know their numbers as well as know the warning signs of cardiovascular disease.”

In her job, she maintains the day-to-day operations and beautification of green spaces as well as park facilities. She is proud to play a role in improving the health of her community. She further expanded her reach by being elected to the Youngstown City School Board. Keeping young people active and healthy is one of her top priorities.

“I’m very proud of her and love that she remains so active in the community,” Washington said. “She has a community that supports and admires her.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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