For Elizabeth May, excruciating headache turned out to be a stroke

“I felt like my head was going to split in two.”

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was in the front row of a Claremont Secondary School graduation ceremony at the University of Victoria when she was struck with an excruciating headache. A week later it was diagnosed as a small stroke.

“I felt like my head was going to split in two,” May, 69, said of the incident which happened on June 29. “It didn’t occur to me this was the sign of a stroke.”

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May is off work until she is cleared by physicians to return to a “regular” schedule. May is running in the next federal election but she said she has now had a “wake-up call” and she won’t again let herself work weeks on end without a day off.

“I’m not going to push my luck,” May said. “This was a real wake-up call to say: ‘OK, you’re not immortal — you dodged a bullet this time, thank God.’

“I’m not going to ever again allow myself to be pushed into seven days a week, 19-hour days without so much as a day off over a month-and-a-half. It’s just not human. I can’t do it.”

Parliament in May and June prior to summer break in recent years has seen sessions running past midnight and resuming early the next morning as the governing party tries to get through its agenda and the Opposition tries to block it.

“If we going to do these hours, if they are really necessary, we should get some first aid and get some medics and put out cots and have someone checking blood pressure so nobody dies,” said May.

May had a hemorrhagic stroke which is caused when an artery in the brain breaks open. High blood pressure weakens arteries over time and is a major cause of hemorrhagic stroke. May said she had no idea her blood pressure was elevated. She’s now on medication for that.

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“I’ve never had a single high blood pressure reading in my life,” said May.

“And I’ve had lots of checks on blood pressure going into my two knee surgeries.

“I didn’t think I was at any risk of having a massive stroke or even a mini one,” she said, describing hers as “very little.”

Strokes can happen at any age but the risk rises rapidly after age 55. The strongest risk factor, says Health Canada, is high blood pressure.

May had attended all but one of the high school graduations in her riding and Claremont Secondary was her last. The Green Party hands out a $500 scholarship to students chosen by faculty. “I really like to be there to give it to the young person who has won.”

May was in pain and nauseous and doesn’t know how she got on stage to present the award on June 29 but did. Afterwards, she thought she must be having a migraine though she never gets headaches. She asked her assistant for pain medication.

May said her husband John Kidder cared for her and tried various other means to get May help. It was two days later, still feeling unwell, that May finally went to Victoria General Hospital. The couple sat in the ER for about four hours — with the wait-time only increasing. She opted to return home, which she now regrets.

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May said part of the problem is she and Kidder don’t have a family doctor. “I haven’t had a health check up in years.”

It wasn’t until July 5 that May finally got in to see a physician at Shoreline medical clinic in Sidney who immediately suspected a stroke and sent her to Saanich Peninsula Hospital for a full work up “and they kept me there until my blood pressure was in the realm of normal.” She was discharged July 8.

“I was extremely lucky because the stroke itself did not do even short-term damage, much less permanent damage,” said May. “I keep counting my blessings because I’m lucky on so many levels.”

May said she and her friends know all the classic signs of a stroke — one side of the face drooping, arm weakness and slurred speech — but she was not aware a severe sudden headache is also a symptom.

Other symptoms include vision changes especially in one eye, numbness usually on one side of the body, confusion or trouble speaking or understanding, and trouble with balance, according to Heart and Stroke foundation of Canada.

After 13 years May had briefly stepped down as party leader in 2019 while the party was on a high. She did so in part for her daughter who wanted her mother to better care for herself and her health. She returned as leader in 2022.

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Beyond the long sittings in the House of Commons, May is well known for working punishingly long hours, determined to read all legislation tabled, giving a large number of speeches, and travelling back and forth to Ottawa when Parliament is in session and attending as many events in her riding as possible.

After her stroke, which had yet to be diagnosed, May participated in the Canada Day parade in Sidney but unlike her participation in the Victoria Day parade in Victoria, she did not walk the entire parade route but instead rode in a car because she was still feeling unwell.

The American Stroke Association says some signs of stroke in women can be subtle enough to be missed or brushed off. That can lead to delays in getting time-sensitive, lifesaving treatments.

Health Canada says high blood pressure is the strongest risk factor for a stroke

May said she is otherwise remarkably healthy and enjoying “chill time” with family. “I’ve been under strict instructions from my doctor and from my husband and from my daughter to rest.”

She said she is doing a minimum amount of work she feels must get done but is otherwise waiting for the results of her MRI and clearance from her physician to return to Ottawa “because there’s things I’d like to get done.” May wants to get her top-secret security clearance to continue work on David Johnston’s report on foreign interference.

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May, who is a practising Anglican and ordained as a priest, said she is taking her full recovery from a stroke as a sign: “If there’s one message from my creator it is … ‘that stroke could have killed you but it didn’t so your work here is not yet done.’ “And I’m very clear on that.”

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