Bright lights and determination: YSU student suffers stroke at 19

Mikayla Smith after her first surgery, still in a coma. Last month, as of Feb. 24, she said she no longer uses her leg brace to walk and the paralysis of her left arm is gone. Photo courtesy of Smith family

By Misty King

Young and seemingly healthy, 19-year-old sophomore Mikayla Smith is studying at Youngstown State University in the BaccMed program with aspirations to become a doctor. 

Smith suffered a stroke while enjoying what she thought was a normal day.  She described how her day turned from normal to life-changing. 

She went from hanging out with friends and being herself to facing a life-altering event.

“On June 10, I came home and I had this really bad headache, and I told my friends on FaceTime that it felt like I had a brain bleed,” Smith said. 

Her word choice to describe her excruciating headache turned out to be an accurate description of what was actually happening. 

Once she began slurring her words, her mother took her to the hospital, where she began convulsing, and was rushed into emergency surgery to stop her brain from bleeding out. 

Smith’s stroke took place during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and a problem many patients faced was not being able to have their loved ones with them through their suffering, an issue Smith fortunately was able to avoid. 

“I did have a very good support system. My parents were allowed to stay in the hospital with me,” she said, calling herself lucky. 

As the doctors scrambled to save her life, they faced one problem after another. 

A head injury, especially a brain bleed, is a ticking bomb, a race against time. The doctors realized her brain was still swelling at a greater rate than normal during surgery. 

They took a large portion of her skull out on the side of her head, which helped. Throughout the course of this surgery, Smith’s brain bled out 500 milliliters, or half a liter.

“I was in a coma for 10 days. I had five brain surgeries. I was in the hospital for 98 consecutive days,” Smith said. 

After keeping Smith on close observation, the doctors realized the first surgery was not enough, and they had to perform another while she was still in a coma. 

In this procedure, the doctors inserted a tube into her head to drain blood and ventricular fluids, and to help her brain regulate the spinal fluid that was leaking into her head. 

Due to her brain not working properly at this time, it also was not regulating her body temperature properly. She had a fever of 104 degrees, one of the simpler complications.

“I lost my ability to speak, see, use the left side of my body. And they shaved my head, but that’s the least of my problems,” she said.  

Unfortunately, the rupture of her AVM was not caught in time, as Smith faced one issue after another, along with lasting physical deficits. 

Smith stated she was enrolled in intensive therapy for five days a week for three months in the hopes of regaining the strength and ability to use her left arm and leg. 

Eventually, her hard work and determination finally paid off. As of Feb. 24, Smith said she no longer uses her leg brace to walk and the paralysis of her left arm is gone. 

Though still not fully recovered, she is able to use the left side of her body once again. Smith is hopeful about her future as well.