Stephanie Mensh

May is Stroke Awareness Month.  Stroke is the 4th leading cause of death, and a leading cause of disability among adults.  According to the American Stroke Association, about 795,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year, stroke kills more than 128,000 people a year, and more than $38 billion is spent each year on stroke-related medical costs and disability.

Strokes occur among people of all ages, and among otherwise healthy-looking women and men.  Eighty percent of strokes are caused by clots in blood vessels in the brain blocking the flow of oxygen and nutrients to brain cells; 20 percent are caused by ruptured vessels killing brain cells with a flood of lethal blood.

My husband suffered a stroke over 25 years ago at the young age of 36, when he was at the gym exercising.  His symptoms were the worst headache ever, and extreme dizziness.  He asked the attendant at the desk for an aspirin.  Fortunately, they called an ambulance.  If he had been at home, I would not have recognized this as a big problem, and probably would have killed him by giving him a dose of aspirin.  He was experiencing a ruptured aneurysm, blood gushing out of a hole in a bump in a large blood vessel leading to his brain.  The aspirin would have hastened the bleeding.

Back then, the state-of-the-art care couldn’t locate the rupture and while we waited a week in the hospital to repeat the tests, he had a second bleeding episode, leaving him severely disabled.  Today, thanks to advances in imaging and interventional neuroradiology, there’s a much better track record in finding and treating ruptured aneurysms.

For the 80 percent suffering clot-induced strokes, getting to the hospital immediately will allow time to diagnose and begin treatment using clot-busting drugs.  Unfortunately, there’s a small window of time for this treatment, about 3 to 4 hours from the first sign of stroke.  The sooner the person having the stroke gets to the hospital, the sooner appropriate treatment can begin.

Since the person suffering the stroke often cannot act to call 9-1-1, everyone should learn the warning signs, and to act quickly.  It is much better to call an ambulance immediately than to wait to see if the symptoms go away.  This means that spouses, co-workers, friends, children and grandchildren need to learn the signs and how to act immediately, even if the person having the stroke seems resistant.

The signs or symptoms that a person is suffering a stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of the body
  • Sudden trouble seeing or loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

Since this list isn’t easy to remember, the stroke community shortened it to “F.A.S.T.” for:

  • F:  Face Drooping.  Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
  • A:  Arm Weakness.  Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S:  Speech Difficulty.  Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand?  Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.”  Is the sentence repeated correctly?
  • T:  Time to call 9-1-1. If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Of course, some medical professionals need to be reminded that a stroke is a medical emergency, and that if 9-1-1 is called, the ambulance needs to get there immediately, they need to transport the patient to a hospital that can provide immediate stroke diagnosis and care, and the emergency room personnel need to act immediately to bring in the neurologist and conduct the necessary tests.  Unfortunately, there remain many medical professionals, including nurses and physicians, who don’t believe there is any treatment for acute stroke, or don’t recognize it in younger victims, and so “triage” the patient to wait.

The American Stroke Association, part of the American Heart Association, and the National Stroke Association have many helpful tools for educating yourself and others about stroke.  Learn about it today.  If it could happen to my otherwise healthy husband while warming up at the gym, then it could happen to you, or to your loved ones.

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