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From her training, she knew it was crucial to get help fast. "Although I felt no sense of urgency," she later noted, "I understood that the prognosis of stroke is often determined by how quickly a patient gets to the hospital." A blood vessel had burst in her head and she needed anti-inflammatory steroids; pressure was building. She was having a hemorrhage in the brain.

Arteriovenous malformation, or AVM (a tangle of weakened blood vessels), accounts for a small percentage of strokes, most often in the young: 20- to 40-year-olds. It's a condition people are born with, as opposed to strokes brought on by blood clots. Both types have been called bombs in the brain. Strokes caused by AVM kill approximately 10 percent of victims immediately. Between 50 and 80 percent are left impaired. A small percentage do recover fully—but only those, for the most part, who can get to a doctor, and soon.

Jill had minutes, maybe an hour, not much more, and already she was so tired and confused. Her waterbed was right there, visible through the doorway. She ached to climb back in, but a voice said: "If you lie down now, you will never get up." It was the voice she'd always called her "wise woman," the one we all have that says, "Guy's lying" or "Forgot the keys," quickening now to try to save her.

Must get help—but blood was thickening over pieces of her life, matting them out. The landlady downstairs who'd have called the hospital no longer existed; 911 had disappeared. Colors were indeterminate, a noisy whir that was taking her out. Get help. On her desk she found a colleague's card. The numbers were scratch marks, but she recognized the lab's insignia, a crimson brain. Help—in the compressing time, she matched the squiggles on the card to the ones on the phone, covering each as she went so she wouldn't punch it twice. She made the phone ring. Her co-worker answered. She began to say, "This is Jill, and I'm having a stroke," but what came out was "Jhhhhiiiihhhhiiii." She tried again, only grunted and roared, and though his words back were gibberish, she could tell from his tone he'd send help.

Tired. She fumbled through one more call, to her doctor, who repeated the name of a hospital till she understood. More than an hour had now gone by, light was horrid, searing. Hanging up, she crawled onto the sofa, pulled a parka over her head to block the light, and hoped it wouldn't be too long before someone came.

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