A young paramedic was left paralysed after stretching her neck and rupturing a major artery in her spine.
23-year-old Natalie Kunicki returned from a night out on March 4 and was watching films in bed with a friend when she moved and stretched her neck, causing a loud crack to sound.
The London Ambulance Service paramedic didn’t think anything of it, and went to sleep.
Speaking later, she recalled:
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.
About 15 minutes later, she woke up and wanted to go to the bathroom, but realised she couldn’t move her left leg, falling to the floor when she tried to walk.
The 23-year-old couldn’t understand what was happening, and considered she could have been drugged on the night out.
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.
Natalie was hesitant to call 999, as she didn’t want a crew she knew to turn up and find her tipsy, but she finally put aside her embarrassment and called the emergency services.
Her coordination quickly deteriorated, and both her heart rate and blood pressure were ‘sky high’.
In the early hours of March 5, Natalie was rushed to hospital, where a CT scan confirmed she’d had a stroke. As her neck had cracked, the young woman’s vertebral artery had burst, causing a blood clot to form in her brain.
The clot triggered the stroke, which caused her left side to become almost completely paralysed.
She underwent a three-hour surgery, and while surgeons were able to repair Natalie’s artery with a stent, they couldn’t clear the clot in her brain – though thankfully they believe it will dissolve in time.
Natalie was understandably overwhelmed at her diagnosis, and she admitted she went into shock, feeling emotionless after hearing the news.
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.
Natalie went on:
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 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.
The 23-year-old felt so low, she even told the consultant they ‘should have killed’ her. But thanks to a good group of friends rallying around her, Natalie was able to throw herself into her recovery.
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’.
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 worked hard to do daily exercises, which helped her regain enough movement in her leg, arm and hand to be discharged to her parents’ home at the end of March.
Now she is speaking out to warn people of the risks of cracking joints, and spread awareness how strokes don’t just affect older people.
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 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 since recovered movement on her left side, and can now dress herself and walk for up to five minutes at a time. Although doctors can’t give an exact timescale for a full recovery, Natalie is hoping to be back to work for ‘light duty’ in six to 12 months.
The paramedic’s parents are due to move to Australia in July, and as she had to give up her London flat, Natalie is hoping to find a way to stay in London.
Her brother set up a fundraising page to help her remain in England, which you can donate to here.
Hopefully Natalie will find a way to stay and continue on her road to full recovery.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.