Famous for playing April Ludgate on the popular comedy Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza is known for her deadpan delivery onscreen. But at the age of 20, while she was still in college, the actor experienced a startling health episode that was no laughing matter: Despite having no known health problems, the seemingly healthy aspiring actor suffered an unexpected stroke.
Now 38, she’s opening up about that frightening day—and the scary sign that alerted her to the fact that something was seriously wrong. Read on to learn what her very first symptom was, and to find out how the health hiccup continues to change the White Lotus star’s life all these years later.
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At 20 years old, Plaza was a film student at New York University, living in Astoria, Queens. The day of her stroke began like any other, she says. “I was going to my friend’s apartment for lunch,” she began during a 2017 interview with NPR Fresh Air producer Ann Marie Baldonado. “It’s really kind of a very typical stroke story where it just happened mid-sentence out of nowhere. I don’t think I had even taken my jacket off. I walked into the apartment. I was telling my two friends about a Hilary Duff concert that I had taken my younger sister to the night before.”
Accustomed to Plaza’s dark sense of humor, her friends didn’t recognize the episode as the dire medical threat that it was. “They thought I was making a joke… I was always doing something stupid, but then after a couple of minutes, you know, they kept saying, ‘do you want us to call an ambulance?’ I was aware enough to shake my head yes,” she recalled. “I kept just shaking my head yes because I knew something was really, really wrong,” she added.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of stroke include sudden weakness in the face, arm, or leg, impaired vision, an inability to walk, dizziness or loss of balance, and severe headache. Sudden confusion and difficulty speaking—two of the first symptoms Plaza experienced—also sit atop that list.
“I kind of blacked out for a second. And then I remember there was just like a really loud kind of sound happening,” said Plaza, recalling the moment she knew something was wrong. “I couldn’t talk because the blood clot was in the language center of my brain. So I had expressive aphasia instantly, which means that if you’re talking to me, I could understand what you’re saying in my mind and understand how to respond. But I couldn’t actually get it out. I couldn’t actually talk,” she said.
Plaza says her stroke lasted just minutes, and her lack of clear symptoms confounded the paramedics and doctors that came to her aid. “So what happened was the paramedics came, and they also—I think because I was so young—didn’t assume that I had had a stroke. They were thinking that I was dehydrated. And I really think they thought I was on drugs because they kept asking me if I’d taken drugs, and I hadn’t. I hadn’t really put anything into my body that day except for birth control, which ended up being maybe the cause of the stroke,” she explained.
However, the ambulance took her to a hospital in Queens, where, after a long wait, she finally received care. “I sat in the ER for about two hours before a doctor examined me because I physically looked fine. But I couldn’t talk, and I was confused. I also couldn’t write. And so then a doctor finally examined me, and I believe she asked me to put my right hand on my left knee,” said Plaza. “I couldn’t do it. I was confused about right and left. And I think that’s when everyone realized, oh, like, she had a stroke,” she told Baldonado.
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Plaza credits her young age at the time of the incident for her swift recovery. With the help of a cognitive therapist, her confusion ceased and she quickly regained her ability to communicate. “I think I was lucky. I was so young that my brain… healed itself really fast. So I was talking after a couple of days,” she told the NPR producer. “At least I could walk. When it first happened to me I was paralyzed,” she added in a 2016 interview with The Guardian.
Now 38, she says that “terrifying” day still affects her—though not necessarily for the worse. “I guess it sounds cheesy to say, but I think I always am aware of how precious life is, and I try to remember that every day,” she shared with Baldonado. “I tend to see the bigger picture or try to see the bigger picture and try not to take things so seriously and try not to get hung up on the small things… I can’t help but think that it has affected me in ways that I won’t even know until later. But I do have an overall feeling that life is short. And I might as well just do as much as I can.”