This Itasca pageant contestant had a stroke at 29. She wants other young people to be spared.

  • Natalie Poli inside her Itasca home with photos of her family.

      Natalie Poli inside her Itasca home with photos of her family. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Natalie Poli with her husband, Tony, at the Mrs. International Pageant regionals. Poli is using the pageant to help spread her message about strokes among young people. She was 29 when she suffered a stroke.

    Natalie Poli with her husband, Tony, at the Mrs. International Pageant regionals. Poli is using the pageant to help spread her message about strokes among young people. She was 29 when she suffered a stroke. Courtesy of Natalie Poli

  • Wauconda police Sgt. Sean Lewakowski responded when Natalie Poli suffered a stroke in 2006.

      Wauconda police Sgt. Sean Lewakowski responded when Natalie Poli suffered a stroke in 2006. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2017

 
 
Updated 1/11/2022 8:04 AM

Natalie Poli was 29 years old when she suffered a stroke that could have taken her life.

It was Jan. 6, 2006. Poli was blissfully unaware she had been born with a heart defect -- two holes in her heart and an atrial septum aneurysm -- and she had given birth to her second son just nine weeks before.

 

The newborn was asleep in his car carrier, and Poli had just finished giving her 2-year-old a bath when, without warning, she pitched over to one side.

Bewildered, she crawled into the hallway and shouted for her husband.

He took charge of the boys, and she went to lie down but realized quickly she was getting worse. Soon after she lost all speech.

She called her doctor's office, but the after-hours answering service hung up, thinking it was a crank call.

She then called her in-laws.

"It's me," she said in her head, but they too hung up.

The 911 operator Poli managed to reach also hung up but did not abandon her. A few minutes later the doorbell rang, and Wauconda police Sgt. Sean Lewakowski came inside.

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When Poli couldn't answer his questions, he gave her paper and pen. She watched as the pen fell to the ground. Lewakowski got on his radio.

"I have a 29-year-old stroke victim, nine weeks postpartum, send the medics now," he said.

• • •

Today, Poli is 45 and the mother of three boys, an educational specialist with a doctoral degree in educational leadership and administration, an instructional coach in Roselle Elementary District 12 and a senior patient adviser to the PICS Society (Pediatric and Congenital Interventional Cardiovascular Society).

With no residual stroke or brain damage, Poli, who now lives in Itasca, considers herself extremely fortunate.

"I had lived 29 years and had no idea I had congenital heart disease and was born with a heart defect," Poli wrote in the October 2021 issue of Congenital Cardiology Today newsletter.

"I was lucky the outcome was not worse. I had been active as a dancer for over 20 years of my life, ate well, always went to my annual doctors' visits, and gave birth to two of my three boys by that time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"How had no one previously found these holes in my heart?"

Always fit, Poli had been a member of the University of Iowa dance team and professionally was captain of the Luvabulls, the Chicago Bulls cheerleaders. She recalled later that there had been clues, like respiratory problems in her childhood and difficulties with the training for the college dance team. Once, coming off the basketball court at the United Center, she was gasping for air and had to use a friend's asthma inhaler.

"I was like a ticking time bomb," Poli said.

A post-stroke echocardiogram found the aneurysm and the holes in her heart.

Doctors determined the stroke was caused by a blood clot that traveled from her heart to the area of the brain that controls speech, language and feeling in the right side of the body.

"Postpartum women have a higher blood volume due to pregnancy; that was a factor in the amount of blood that was moving through my heart, which already had incorrect channels of movement due to the holes," Poli wrote.

Baton Rouge General Medical Center posted a report last year saying there has been a 44% increase in younger people having strokes within the past decade.

They add that women are more likely than men to have strokes, and also more likely to die from them. The Cleveland Clinic published an article in 2019 saying an estimated 10% of strokes occur in people younger than 50.

• • •

Poli's experience has led her to become an advocate for young people who may not know they have preconditions that could lead to strokes.

She formed the STROKE of Insight campaign to educate people of all ages about stroke and advocate for early detection, including echocardiograms in infancy.

Poli has chosen an unusual platform for her advocacy -- the Mrs. International Pageant.

In 2021, she was named first runner-up Mrs. Illinois International and assumed the title outright when the winner resigned.

She since has been crowned Mrs. Midwest International 2022 and awaits the final Mrs. International pageant this July in Kingsport, Tennessee.

The contestants for Mrs. International are all beautiful women. But each also is there to promote her own platform and community service. In fact, their advocacy in private and onstage interviews is worth 50% of their score (evening wear and fitness wear each represent 25%).

"I feel like pageantry gives me the opportunity to tell my story on a larger stage," Poli said.

"I feel really excited and so blessed to be put in this position."

Later this month, Poli will reunite with Lewakowski, the officer she believes saved her life, for the first time since she suffered the stroke 16 years ago.

In 2017, Lewakowski was honored as the American Legion Illinois Officer of the Year.

Their campaign will educate others on the causes and prevention of strokes and advocate for those with congenital heart disease.

It will include a podcast called "Stroke of Insight" featuring interviews with stroke survivors and medical professionals.

Poli said making the podcast brings her back to her journalism roots. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Iowa and originally wanted to be a sports reporter.

"You kind of follow what life gives you," Poli said. "You don't always know where you will end up, but you will always find what your purpose is.

"Through STROKE of Insight, I feel like I'm living through my passion."

• Read Natalie Poli's essay, "A Survivor's Story," at www.congenitalcardiologytoday.com.

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