While tending to her grandmother after a stroke, she had one herself

By Diane Daniel, American Heart Association News

Stroke survivor Dawn Berry. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Griffioen Mosley)
Stroke survivor Dawn Berry. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Griffioen Mosley)

Late one evening, Dawn Berry took a call from her grandmother's nursing home. Her grandmother had been found unresponsive in bed. What should they do?

Dawn, who was then 43, had worked in the medical field for more than 20 years in her hometown of Oklahoma City. When her grandmother had a severe stroke at home a few months earlier, Dawn's aunts and uncles authorized her to make medical decisions. Now she made another: Send Grandma to the emergency room.

Dawn arrived around 9 p.m. Awake most of the night coordinating care, she was talking to a doctor about her grandmother – who was having complications from the stroke – when Dawn felt the room start spinning. By now it was around 5 a.m. She blamed the episode on stress.

After going home to rest, she returned to her grandmother's bedside. She felt a little off balance, but again dismissed it as stress and exhaustion.

Later that week, Dawn still felt unsteady. At one point, she tilted to the right and began falling. She might've hit the ground had her cousins not been there to catch her.

The next morning, she started cooking French toast for her daughter, Izzy Berry-Northcutt, and her sister, Dana Berry. The three live together. The right side of Dawn's face felt odd. She touched it and couldn't feel anything. She dug her nails into her neck. Still nothing.

"Dana, I think I had a stroke," she said.

At the hospital, bloodwork and a CT scan showed no problems. Still, she was admitted for observation and further testing.

The next day – Jan. 12, 2020 – an MRI showed she'd had a stroke. Two, actually; the other occurred at some unknown point in the past.

Doctors couldn't pinpoint the cause. They blamed it on stress and her weight.

At the time, Dawn weighed 465 pounds.

She had never been thin. By her senior year of high school, she carried 180 pounds on her 5-foot-7 frame.

"In the Black community, bigger is better," she said. "It's instilled in us. The bigger the woman is, the better she can sing. The better she can cook. It's a thing that's hard to resist."

When she was 26, Dawn gave birth to Izzy and raised her as a single mom. That started her path of eating for comfort. Her habit worsened when her mother, who had heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, died at 56. Her father had some similar issues and died when he was 57.

Although Dawn was never diagnosed with diabetes, she was on two blood pressure medications by the time she was 40.

Meanwhile, her job was stressful. She'd worked in ER scheduling and bed assignments and had assisted hospital case managers and social workers.

And even though the smallest amount of walking wore her out, Dawn felt the need to hide it all. What little energy remained she put into looking "put together and stylish."

Following the stroke, Dawn felt like everything had caught up to her. She also endured another blow: Grandma died while Dawn was still in the hospital. She missed the funeral.

The stroke left Dawn with few deficits – and new priorities. She didn't want her daughter to be without a mother.

By the time Dawn got home from the hospital, Dana had filled their refrigerator and cupboards with healthy food. Dawn also started seeing a therapist.

In June 2020, Dawn began the process of preparing to undergo bariatric surgery for weight loss. Before, she'd dismissed it as cheating. Now she saw how much education and discipline it involved. Before the surgery, on Dec. 15, 2020, she'd lost 65 pounds. Since then, she's lost an additional 140 pounds and counting. She takes only one blood pressure medication.

"It's been hard to retrain my brain to eat smaller portions," she said. "This is definitely not the easy way out."

Dawn walks up to 4 miles a day. She also organizes a team, called "Rhythm and Shoes," to walk the American Heart Association's Oklahoma City Heart & Stroke Walk every year.

"There's a freedom in walking that I haven't felt since high school," said Dawn, who is now a cardiac device coordinator at a heart hospital. "It's wonderful."

This past spring, she went to Hawaii with Dana and Izzy. It was her first time on a plane in 20 years and her first trip ever to the beach.

Dawn Berry (right) with her sister, Dana, in Hawaii earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Berry)
Dawn Berry (right) with her sister, Dana, in Hawaii earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Berry)

"My life is just a lot of living it up again," she said.

Despite her achievements, Dawn still fights body dysmorphia.

"I don't see myself the way others see me," she said. "I can look in a mirror and see old Dawn."

One person who only sees a new Dawn is her close friend Lindsay Gruntmeir.

"I'm impressed by how strong and tenacious she's been because I know it's been hard," Gruntmeir said.

Dawn Berry (left) with her friend, Lindsay Gruntmeir, doing the virtual Oklahoma City Heart Walk in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Berry)
Dawn Berry (left) with her friend, Lindsay Gruntmeir, doing the virtual Oklahoma City Heart Walk in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Berry)

Before Dawn's weight loss, the two would rarely go out to eat and would never go to a concert, she said.

"Now we're doing all these things," she said. "She's always come across as super confident, but in some ways it was defensive. Now it's like a quieter confidence."

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

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