Samantha Smith Aquino living with Migraine

No one understands the experience of migraine 

Samantha Aquino knows a thing or two about toughing it out. She is an active duty U.S. service member and Marine Corps combat veteran who served four deployments, including two tours in Afghanistan. She was among the first women to graduate from armored crewman tank school, becoming one of the first women tank commanders in U.S. history. She also practices martial arts and lifts weights for fun. 

Samantha Smith Aquino

Texas, United States


Member of the U.S. armed services, tank commander


Migraine with aura

It takes a lot to bring her down. And nothing brings her down the way migraine attacks do.  


“The pain starts in my forehead, then it starts rolling into the back of my eyes, where my eyes hurt so much I don’t want to open them. Then I start to feel more pain and pressure in the back of my head, and I start to see a white blur – like looking into a dense fog. When it gets to that point, it feels like there is a jack hammer in my head, rattling my brain around. It feels like a bunch of concussions happening one after another,” she says of her migraine attacks.


“A lot of people say, ‘I have headaches, too.’ No, you don’t understand. This is something way worse. You cannot function with migraine,” she says.


Even people living with migraine may not understand they are dealing with a neurological condition and more than “just a headache”, Samantha says. For a time, she was one of those people. “Especially for those of us in combat arms jobs, there’s a lot we deal with, and we get used to having to tough it out. That’s just what do,” she explains. “There were times when I started to doubt myself and wonder if I was just being a wuss. But my migraine attacks were awful. I knew something was wrong.”


Samantha lived with migraine for years before receiving an accurate diagnosis. Today, she is managing her migraine disease with a treatment plan from her neurologist, and she wants others who are living with migraine to know there is hope for improvement. “Migraine can be managed, but we need to speak up for ourselves, and then we need people to believe us,” she says.

Fighting for a diagnosis and to be validated 

 Samantha enlisted in the military when she was 18, straight out of high school. In 2012, she was in her first deployment in Helmand province, Afghanistan, when she suffered a severe concussion. After the injury, she began experiencing regular, debilitating migraines. But some of her commanding officers and fellow soldiers dismissed the symptoms and underestimated their impact. “People would tell me I was dehydrated, or I just needed to take some ibuprofen. But I would say, ‘I am hydrated, I took ibuprofen, nothing is working.’”


Samantha was left treating her migraine attacks with over-the-counter pain medication and ice packs. But there were times she couldn’t stay ahead of it. “I would end up throwing up and my leadership would send me home. When I would get home, I would just pass out with an ice pack in the dark until my alarm went off in the morning. My head would be sore for about a day or so, and then I’d be back to normal,” she recalls. 


She admits it was tiresome having to explain why she wore sunglasses all the time, even at night (bright light is a migraine trigger for Samantha). And it was frustrating when people – colleagues and healthcare providers alike – questioned if her pain was real or if she was just looking to avoid service. “Look at my history. Do I look like someone who doesn’t want to be here?” she would say. 

“A lot of people say, ‘I have headaches, too.’ No, you don’t understand. This is something way worse. You cannot function with migraine.”  Samantha Smith Aquino

Everything changed after diagnosis 

Samantha is not alone in her experience. A recent study shows that only about 25 percent of people who meet the diagnostic criteria for chronic migraine and are consulting a healthcare provider receive an accurate diagnosis.¹


 “I had to fight for a diagnosis. I asked for a neurology consultation again and again until I got one,” she says. Finally, in 2018, Samantha was diagnosed with migraine with aura.


She is now married and a mother to a 2-year-old daughter. She experiences migraine symptoms several times per week, but her disease is well managed with medication and her attacks are no longer debilitating. “Once I was diagnosed, everything changed. I got the medication I need, and it was such a relief,” she says. “But it took 6 years. It shouldn’t take 6 years.”

  1. Dodick DW, Loder EW, Manack Adams A, Buse DC, Fanning KM, Reed ML, Lipton RB. Assessing Barriers to Chronic Migraine Consultation, Diagnosis, and Treatment: Results From the Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO) Study. Headache. 2016 May;56(5):821-834. 

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