It's estimated that every three days in Canada, a pregnant woman or new mother has a stroke – an often devastating health crisis that can disrupt new families, causing disability and even death.

Doctors say such strokes are rare, but few pregnant women are aware they are at risk just before and after birth. And doctors say more research is needed to understand why these strokes happen at all.

Six months ago, Helen Quijano suffered a stroke just days after giving birth to her daughter, Ariadne. The previously healthy and fit new mother had struggled with infertility and finally became pregnant at 47, enjoying a normal pregnancy and birth.

But four days after returning home from the hospitals, she developed a blinding headache. Her husband, Ricardo Quijano realized she couldn’t move her arm and part of her face was drooping.

The stroke was massive and left Helen paralyzed on her left side. She now has trouble walking and relies on a wheelchair. She also has trouble speaking and is in intensive therapy at health care facility in Toronto. She says she never saw the stroke coming.

“I didn’t have any symptoms, no indications that things were wrong. When I found out the reason for the stroke was sudden high blood pressure, that threw me for surprise because my blood pressure had always been at the lower end,” she says.

A recent Canadian study confirmed that strokes in pregnant women happen three times as often as in non-pregnant women, and the risk elevated for six or even 12 weeks after birth.

Study co-author Dr. Rick Swartz, the director of the Stroke Research Unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said there are a few reasons why women are at an increased risk of stroke during pregnancy.

Some women develop high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy. Though the conditions often resolve after delivery, they increase the risk of stroke during pregnancy.

As well, the female body simply forms more clots during pregnancy to protect itself from too much bleeding during delivery, Dr. Swartz explained, and clots can travel to the brain and become strokes.

Strokes tend to occur more frequently in older mothers and are often triggered by changes in hormones and spikes in blood pressure.

Sometimes there is no clear trigger. Geneviève Morel was 26 and six months pregnant when she started suffering headaches. Her doctor told her it was part of a normal pregnancy. But days later, she experienced a stroke that almost ended her life.

“It was a big explosion in my head,” she recalled. “I fell on the floor and all my left side was paralyzed.”

Through a five-hour surgery, doctors were able to save Morel’s life and that of her baby, Nathan, who was born three months later and is now a healthy preschooler.

With exercise and rehab, Morel has regained most of her abilities, though still notices some lingering effects. Quijano was not as lucky.

Six months after her stroke, she is still doing rehab, learning how to live without the use of her left side, and how to perform basic tasks like pouring tea or heating up her daughter’s baby bottle. Still, she says she’s learning to adjust.

“Your life is not over when you have a stroke, (but) it’s something very big to get used to,” she says.

Doctors say the best ways to minimize the risk of stroke during pregnancy are to:

  • exercise several times a week
  • minimize stress
  • eat a healthy diet
  • avoid alcohol and smoking

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth Dt. Philip