A paramedic who routinely cracks her joints was left partially paralysed at just 23 when a neck crack caused a stroke by rupturing a major artery in her spine.
Natalie Kunicki was watching films in bed with her friend after a night out on March 4 when she stretched her neck and heard a loud crack.
The young London Ambulance Service paramedic thought nothing of it and went to sleep but when she woke up just 15 minutes later, she couldn't move her left leg and fell to the floor when she tried to walk.
In the early hours of March 5, Natalie was rushed to hospital in an ambulance where a CT scan confirmed she had suffered a stroke.
As her neck had cracked, Natalie's vertebral artery had burst causing a blood clot to form in her brain and triggered a stroke.
Natalie, whose left side was almost completely paralysed by the stroke, said the diagnosis was such a shock that she became "emotionless" for days.
But thanks to her work pals giving her a week to "snap out of it", Natalie was able to overcome her "pity party" and threw all her energy into her recovery.
Doing daily exercises helped Natalie regain enough movement in her leg, arm and hand to be discharged on March 28 to her parents home in Harrow, London.
Now Natalie is speaking out to warn people of the risks when cracking joints and that strokes can affect people of all ages.
Natalie, who moved from Canberra, Australia, to join the LAS in December 2017, said: "People need to know that even if you're young something this simple can cause a stroke.
"I wasn't even trying to crack my neck. I just moved and it happened.
"I'm a paramedic and I didn't ring 999 for 10 minutes because I thought it was too unlikely it would be a stroke when I should have known much better.
"Every minute more of your brain cells are dying so don't ever discount a stroke just because someone is young.
"And people need to be more mindful when doing any chiropractic exercises or strenuous gym weights.
"I was in bed watching stuff with a friend when it happened.
"I stretched my neck and I could just hear this 'crack, crack, crack'. My friend asked 'was that your neck?' but all my joints crack quite a bit so I didn't think anything of it. I just laughed."
She added: "I fell asleep and when I woke up about 15 minutes later. I wanted to go to the bathroom but I could feel this leg in the bed and I was asking my friend if he could move his leg.
"He told me it was my leg but I was a bit tipsy so I wasn't taking anything seriously and just thought 'that's a bit weird'.
"I got up and tried to walk to the bathroom and I was swaying everywhere. I looked down and realised I wasn't moving my left leg at all then I fell to the floor.
"My friend had to come and pick me up. He thought I was drunk but I knew something else was wrong. I thought I had been drugged. The date rape drug can cause paralysis."
However when she was told it was in fact a stroke, Natalie was overwhelmed.
Natalie said: "When the consultant told me I'd had a stroke I was in shock.
"The doctors told me later that just that stretching of my neck had caused my vertebral artery to rupture. It was just spontaneous and there's a one in a million chance of it happening.
"I don't smoke, I don't really drink, I don't have any family history of strokes so it's quite strange it happened to me when I was just moving in bed.
"I was in shock for about three days in ICU. I was a bit of a wet blanket. I didn't really say much and I wasn't engaging with anyone. I had no sense of humour.
"But a couple of my friends from the ambulance service told me 'you have a week from the day of your stroke to snap out of this or we will snap you out of it'.
"I was able to have my little pity party for a week but that's it. They told me 'what's done is done now just work and do all the exercises'.
"They were fantastic and they would come in and do all the exercises with me.
"I think if I didn't have them I would have been in my pity party quite a bit longer but instead I smashed through all the therapy goals."
Natalie admits she was hesitant at first to call 999 as she didn't want a crew she knew to turn up and find her "tipsy" so tried to just go back to sleep.
After struggling to fall back to sleep, Natalie finally put aside her embarrassment and called the emergency services.
As soon as the ambulance crew started carrying out tests, Natalie realised there was something seriously wrong as her coordination had deteriorated and her heart rate and blood pressure were "sky high".
What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, causing a brain injury, disability or death as brain cells begin to die.
The life-threatening medical condition requires urgent treatment, as the sooner a person receives treatment, the less damage is likely to happen.
Treatment can include medication or even surgery. Survivors are often left with long-term problems caused by injury to their brain.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms can be remembered with the word 'fast', the NHS says.
- Face – the face may have dropped on one side or the person may not be able to smile
- Arms – the person may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there due to weakness or numbness
- Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or they may not be able to talk at all
- Time – dial 999 immediately if you notice any of these signs or symptoms
What are the causes?
The two main causes are ischaemic (the blood supply is stopped because of a blood clot) and haemorrhagic (a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts).
The NHS says 85 per cent of all cases are ischaemic.
A 'mini-stroke', known as a transient ischaemic attack, occurs when the blood supply to the brain is temporarily interrupted. It also requires immediate treatment.
How to prevent a stroke?
Conditions that can increase the risk of having a stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation and diabetes.
People can significantly reduce their risk by leading a healthy lifestyle.
The NHS suggests eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking.
The ambulance crew rushed Natalie to University College London Hospital where tests confirmed she had suffered a stroke and would need emergency surgery.
After being blue-lighted to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Natalie underwent three-hour surgery where doctors discovered her burst artery.
While surgeons were able to repair Natalie's artery with a stent, they couldn't clear the clot in her brain but they believe it will dissolve in time.
This shocking news, along with her mobility being even worse after surgery, left Natalie feeling so low she told her consultant they "should have killed her".
Natalie said: "I expected to wake up from this miracle surgery and everything would be fixed but my mobility was worse and they couldn't clear the clot.
"At the start I couldn't move my thumb and forefinger. I could kind of move my wrist up and down. I couldn't lift my arm. I could bend my left leg but I couldn't wiggle my toes.
"The doctors would do tests I had to close my eyes and they would touch my left side but I couldn't tell where they were touching.
"It was like when you have really bad sunburn and your skin is sizzling. I felt that all down my left side.
"I think I scared my consultant because after I woke up she came in to ask how I was going but I told her 'you should have killed me'.
"Depression is really common after a stroke because you lose so much of your independence and your dignity.
"I had to have a nurse help me shower in a wheelchair. What 23-year-old needs someone to help them shower and wash their hair? It was just a bit surreal."
Now she has recovered some movement and sensation, Natalie is feeling "much better" and feels her recovery has only sped up since she got back to her parents home.
She has recovered movement on her left side and can now dress herself and walk for up to five minutes at a time,
Doctors cannot give an exact timescale for a full recovery but Natalie is hoping to be back to work for "light duty" in six to 12 months.
As well as her determination to rejoin the LAS, Natalie is also committed to raising more awareness of strokes in young people.
Natalie said: "I have been called out to so many people having strokes and they're always in their 70s or 80s. I have never been to a young person having a stroke.
"Mine was one in a million but a ruptured vertebral artery is actually quite a common cause of strokes in young people."
Natalie has been forced to give up her flat in West Hampstead and is living with her parents Peter, 65, and Anne Kunicki, 62, but they are due to move back to Australia in July.
Her brother Michael Kunicki, 33, has set up a fundraising page for her to help her remain in London.
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