When Luke Perry died earlier this month after a sudden massive stroke, I felt like I was mourning my first boyfriend. This despite the fact that that boyfriend–Beverly Hills 90210’s poetry-reading, Porsche-driving heartthrob Dylan McKay–didn’t exist beyond the TV screen.
Still, the loss felt immense and hit surprisingly hard. Not just because I came of age when 90210 was still on the air, but because I too had a stroke at an early age. In my case, it was in my mid-40s, but while Luke Perry died from his stroke, I lived.
Like many Gen Xers, I religiously watched 90210 when it was on the air in the ’90s. The illusionary world of that iconic ZIP code could not have been any further from my own environment of blue-collar coal country, where I grew up in poverty. Forget Kelly and Brenda—I actually identified most with the character of Andrea, the smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks who attended West Beverly High by using her grandmother’s address to pretend to live within the elite school’s territorial boundaries. As a poor girl in Honors classes who had also used inaccurate addresses on school records throughout a good chunk of my childhood, I could really relate to Andrea, who—serving as the editor of the school newspaper—also shared my love of writing.
It was perhaps because that fictional high school setting was so foreign and unimaginable to me that it was so fascinating, captivating my attention for the duration of every episode. I was also a faithful reader of teen magazines like Tiger Beat, where Perry seemed to have a permanent spot on the cover throughout the ’90s. I was too poor to buy those magazines so would read them cover-to-cover at the library.
Through the glossy pages of the entertainment magazines, I felt like I grew to know Perry as a person. I knew he had a jagged scar that cut through his right eyebrow, the remnant of a childhood injury. I followed the reports of inevitable chaos that would break out whenever he and his co-stars would be appearances at malls across the country.
Through it all—and in the years following—Perry was almost universally praised for his humble attitude, his appreciation of the show’s passionate fans, and his kind, compassion nature. That is part of why his sudden death seemed so shocking, but the other was his youth: surely, Luke Perry, the perennial teenager, was too young to have a stroke, let alone die from one.
Surely, Luke Perry, the perennial teenager, was too young to have a stroke, let alone die from one.
I myself heard heard the same refrain countless times when people heard what had happened to me: “You’re so young.” But as I know from personal experience, you’re never too young. When I had my stroke, I didn’t have a single risk factor: I didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, had no history of diabetes or heart disease, I didn’t drink and never smoked. But still, a stroke found me, just like it found Luke Perry.
The public belief that you can be “too young” for a stroke is a dangerous misconception that can have deadly consequences. When an older person suddenly exhibits classic stroke symptoms like face drooping, arm weakness, slurred speech, confusion, and difficulty walking, onlookers usually know that they should be brought to a hospital as soon as possible. Yet when someone “too young” to have a stroke starts exhibiting those same symptoms, people are more likely to jump to other conclusions (for example, that they are intoxicated or tired or simply feeling poorly) than that they need to call an ambulance.
That’s potentially fatal, because time is of the essence following a stroke. Treatments given within a three-hour window of the first onset of symptoms can greatly increase a patient’s odds of survival.
In my case, my most evident symptom was that I suddenly lost control and function of my right arm. I downplayed it at first, assuring myself that my arm had probably just fallen asleep, or that perhaps I had a pinched nerve. I wasted valuable time ignoring what should have been a clear signal that I needed urgent help. Who knows if I had gotten to the hospital earlier if the lingering side effects of my stroke could have been mitigated? Yet I count my blessing every day, because the outcome could have been so much worse: like Luke Perry, I could have easily died.
Everyone who knew Perry seems to have loved, respected, and admired him. They raved about how generous he was, and what a loyal, steadfast friend he could be. The world is undeniably poorer for his passing, but if there can be some silver lining to this tragedy, I hope it’s that this serves as a wake-up call to those who think a stroke is something that only happens to old people.
Because if Luke Perry, the forever teenager, can have a stroke—anyone can.