In March, Shelley Marshall was recovering from a bout with COVID.

“I remember just waking up and not feeling like myself,” she said.

She started to have brief moments of speech confusion.

“I couldn’t talk,” Marshall said. “I couldn’t get the words out. I knew what I wanted to say, but they weren’t coming out.”

The 47-year-old, who eats healthy, doesn’t smoke and runs 30 miles a week, wasn’t too worried until it happened in front of her teenage daughter on the way to school.

“My daughter even looked at me and was like, ‘Mom, are you ok? Are you having a stroke,” Marshall said.

Marshall is a digital marketing director for UPMC and decided to get checked in the emergency room as a precuation. She was not prepared for what they would find.

“My CT scan showed I had a 95 percent blockage in my carotid artery and they were going to a stroke alert and I was going to be transported to the ICU,” she recalled.

A before and after of the blockage in Marshall’s carotid artery

Not only did Marshall have a stroke, her life was in imminent danger.

“I started to get worse and so it became more clear that I needed treatment quickly,” she said.

She was rushed into a complicated and delicate surgery to unblock her artery, using stents to restore blood flow to her brain.

“I went in for six hours of surgery…I said goodbye to my daughter,” she said. “I just said I loved her. I was able to get those words out, which I was happy about.”

Marshall with her daughter, post-surgery

Marshall’s surgery was performed by Dr. Bart Thaci in the neurological interventional suite at UPMC Harrisburg’s Stroke Treatment Center, which just opened last October.

“I’m glad the technology has reached the point where we’re able to do this procedure,” Thaci said.

It’s unclear why Marshall’s artery was so blocked. Some on her medical team wonder if there’s a COVID connection.

Marshall with Dr. Bart Thaci, the physician who performed her life-saving surgery

“I’m not sure it can damage a vessel in this way or not, we still don’t have data on whether COVID can affect that,” Thaci said. “But I think COVID made things worse in promoting more clotting.”

“I am so lucky and I will not take anyting for granted,” Marshall said. “I feel like I’m here for a reason.”

Part of that reason, she feels, is to share her story. She wants to warn people that strokes can sometimes have just one fleeting symptom.

“If something doesn’t feel right, call 9-1-1 and go to the hospital,” she said.

Marshall is getting stronger each day and has no permanent impairment, although she is still dealing with lingering symptoms from long COVID. She credits her medical team and her boyfriend, Lyle Sarver, a former emergency department nurse, for such a positive outcome.

Marshall and boyfriend, Lyle Sarver

“He didn’t leave my side for 52 hours, so it was huge,” she said.

Marshall also stresses the importance of having an advocate in the hospital, like a partner, who knows you and is able to tell doctors if your behavior is abnormal.

She also credits her daughter, Kennley, and her reaction that morning in March which convinced her to seek treatment.

“We’re that much closer for it,” Marshall said. “The two of us just went away for the week and it’s that much more special because of what happened.”

Marshall and her daughter, Kennley, on vacation in Florida

“I feel very grateful that I’m here and hope I’m here many more years to come,” Marshall continued.

UPMC says strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Marshall believes her healthy lifestyle played a big part in her ability to survive and ultimately recover from this serious condition.

For more stroke resources from UPMC, click here.