stroke can happen to anyone with very little warning, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that someone has a stroke in the U.S. every 40 seconds. Strokes kill an estimated 140,000 Americans each year, accounting for one of every 20 deaths.
Heart disease and stroke get a lot of media attention, but for all the coverage, it’s still easy to miss the warning signs.
“It is important for stroke patients to seek medical care immediately following the first signs of a stroke,” said Dr. Pavan Murty, a neurologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “The faster treatments are provided, the better the outcomes.”
Which is why physicians, including Dr. Murty, say, “Time is brain.”
Terry Casper knows this all too well. Casper, 67, had never been sick, rarely visited a doctor and was in great health. One January evening, he was visiting his son when he noticed that something just didn’t feel right. He couldn’t see out of the right corner of his right eye.
Casper didn’t think much of it and went to work the next day, where his vision continued to deteriorate. After a visit to the hospital, doctors determined that Casper had suffered a small stroke on his right side. With the proper care, he made a full recovery and went back to his daily routine.
In March of this year, Casper was eating lunch with a co-worker when he noticed that he couldn’t control his arms and felt his tongue swell. This time, Casper didn’t ignore the signs of a stroke. He took a moment to collect his thoughts and got a ride to Advocate Lutheran.
Upon arrival, Emergency Department staff got to work immediately, collecting all the information they needed even though Casper’s speech was impacted because this stroke had affected the left side of his brain (the side responsible for language) and began implementing their stroke protocol.
With 25 minutes, he was speaking again, and within one hour, he was “back to normal.” After a few days at Lutheran General, Casper left with an implantable loop recorder in his chest to monitor for atrial fibrillation (aFib), a rapid or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and cardiovascular issues.
“For some stroke patients, we cannot identify a clear cause of stroke, and when we have suspicion that the stroke may be related to clot formation in the heart from an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, we may place a loop recorder to monitor for this rhythm,” says Dr. Murty.
Casper was grateful that a team of physicians, including cardiologists and neurologists, worked together to help him recover from the stroke. Today, he is back home and doing well.
“Don’t brush off any warning signs,” says Casper.
The American Heart Association uses the acronym FAST to describe what to do if you or someone near you is experiencing a stroke. Knowing this acronym can help save lives:
F: Face drooping. Numbness on one side of the face or face drooping could be signs of a stroke. If you notice this, ask the person to smile and determine if the smile is lopsided or if one side of the face is drooping.
A: Arm weakness. Ask if one or both arms feel weak or numb. Look for one arm drifting downwards or hanging to one side.
S: Speech difficulty. Is the person’s speech slurred? Are they unable to speak? Do you have trouble understanding them? To check their speech, ask them to repeat a simple phrase like, “The grass is green.” If they can’t repeat it correctly, it could be a warning sign of a stroke.
T: Time to call 911. If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911. Say, “I think this is a stroke”, and help the person get to the hospital immediately. Make sure you know what time the first symptom appeared so you can present that information to emergency responders.
The amount of time between the first sign of a stroke and receiving medical care is critical in preventing brain damage and other complications associated with a stroke.
“Interventions must be performed within a certain time period following the onset of symptoms, often only a few hours,” says Dr. Murty. “The goal of these treatments is to re-open a blocked blood vessel to save brain tissue.”
Other symptoms of stroke can occur in combination with FAST or separately. The American Heart Association lists the following signs that appear suddenly and could indicate a stroke:
•Confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding speech
•Numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, particularly on one side of the body
•Difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes
•Loss of balance or coordination
•Severe headaches with no known cause