"8-YEAR-OLD STROKE VICTIM," by Erin Allday @ The SF Chronicle

Tamnica Fields thought her daughter Nasakahre had come down with a bad cold when the 8-year-old complained that she wasn't feeling well one morning in February 2003.

But hours later, Fields was making dinner in the kitchen and turned to talk to Nasa, as her family calls her. Fields saw right away that something was horribly wrong: Nasa's face had gone slack on one side. She had suffered a stroke.

"A stroke was the furthest thing from my mind until I turned around and saw my baby's face," Fields said. "Strokes happen to older people. I didn't know children could have strokes."

In a panic, Fields drove Nasa to the emergency room at UCSF. Over the next day and a half, Nasa would have three surgeries to save her life. Thirteen now and ready to start the eighth grade, Nasa still walks with a cane and has trouble with her speech and memory.

Until very recently, studies showed that strokes hit children at a rate of about 2.5 per 1,000 kids, but new research suggests the rate could be twice as high - as many as 6 cases per 1,000 kids. That's not including the many strokes that likely are never diagnosed in children because the symptoms are minor, or even nonexistent. They can strike at any age, including in infancy.

Pediatric neurologist Heather Fullerton started what she believes is the country's first pediatric stroke and cerebrovascular disease center at UCSF last November. She founded the center after talking to too many parents who were frustrated by how difficult it was to find doctors to treat children who had suffered strokes.

Fullerton treated one boy - a 13-year-old from Oregon who played catcher on a national Little League team - who suffered a stroke while on vacation with his family. He was on the beach when he suddenly felt dizzy and confused and had trouble walking. His parents waited a couple days to get him to the hospital, where he was immediately diagnosed.

Soon after, the boy was transferred to UCSF, where Fullerton made another startling discovery - the boy had actually suffered multiple minor strokes that had gone undetected before the big one.

They still don't know the exact cause of his strokes, but suspect the boy may have a weak neck, possibly from an earlier injury, that left the blood vessels leading to his brain vulnerable to tears.

Children usually show the same symptoms of stroke as adults. Weakness on one side of the body is the most obvious sign, but symptoms can be so subtle that even doctors may not think of stroke right away.

Photo Credits: Mike Cane