Our Stroke of Luck
Last Thursday night, I watched my 94-year-old mom suffer a serious stroke.
No, I don’t think it’s because we were watching our third Hallmark holiday movie of the day.
It’s easy to be flippant about it now. Because I saw it happening, and knew the signs, The American Heart Association has an acronym — FAST:
· F = Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?
· 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?
· T = Time to call 911
I immediately had my husband call 911. Paramedics were there within seven minutes, and because we are lucky enough to live close to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, she was being assessed and scanned within 10 minutes after I arrived at the hospital.
A doctor called me while I sat in the Emergency Room waiting area and confirmed that she had suffered a severe stroke. She was paralyzed on the left side of her body. He recommended putting her on a medication called tPA (alteplase or Activase), a med the Mayo Clinic calls the “Gold Standard” for treatment of an ischemic stroke.
The medication had only a three out of seven chance of working, and had the potential to cause more brain bleeding, making her effects worse — possibly much worse. But like in baseball, batting .300 is a success. And my mom’s treatment was a success. When I first saw her in the emergency room, hooked up to wires and an IV, she couldn’t even speak — just mumbles and grunts. Four hours later, when they transferred her to the Trauma ICU and I was kicked out, was smiling and flirting with her nurse.
After extensive tests over two days, my mom was released from the hospital today, Sunday. She was exhausted, learning how to maneuver her new walker, and very happy to see my dogs. But she was still there. The lady hadn’t left me. Apparently, she still has more to teach me.
Her quick recovery is, in a word, astonishing, despite her age and the fact she suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, more than 795,000 U.S. people have a stroke.
Without oxygen, brain cells and tissue become damaged and begin to die within minutes.
There are three primary types of strokes:
· Transient ischemic attack (TIA) involves a blood clot that typically reverses on its own.
· Ischemic stroke involves a blockage caused by either a clot or plaque in the artery. The symptoms and complications of ischemic stroke can last longer than those of a TIA or may become permanent.
· Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by either a burst or leaking blood vessel that seeps into the brain.
I don’t know what caused my mom to have a stroke, except for the fact she suffers from heart arrythmia. Blood thinners help reduce stroke risk with that, and she was on Coumadin (Warfarin) for many years. But eventually her doctor took her off it because she was a “fall risk,” and that was deemed more dangerous to her than a stroke. There are also other risks for strokes, some we have heard for years, as listed here by Healthline:
An unbalanced diet can increase the risk of stroke. This type of diet is high in:
· saturated fats
· trans fats
Heavy alcohol use
If you drink, drink in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men.
Using tobacco in any form also raises the risk of stroke, since it can damage the blood vessels and heart. Nicotine also raises blood pressure.
There are some risk factors for stroke you can’t control, such as:
· Family history. Stroke risk is higher in some families because of genetic health factors, such as high blood pressure.
· Sex. According to the CDC Trusted, while both women and men can have strokes, they’re more common in women than in men in all age groups.
· Age. The older you are, the more likely you are to have a stroke.
· Race and ethnicity. African Americans, Alaska Natives, and American Indians are more likely to have a stroke than other racial groups.
Certain medical conditions
· a previous stroke or TIA
· high blood pressure
· high cholesterol
· carrying too much excess weight
· heart disorders, such as coronary artery disease
· heart valve defects
· enlarged heart chambers and irregular heartbeats
· sickle cell disease
· blood clotting disorder
· patent foramen ovale (PFO)
Certainly, my mom’s heart issue and history of high cholesterol contributed to her stroke. As did her age. But no one really knows when and why a stroke will occur. My 53-year-old sister suffered a stroke 13 years ago and has never fully recovered. She is still severely compromised on her left side of her body, needs a wheelchair, and is losing her cognitive abilities. She was pretty active, was not a drinker or smoker, and took medication for our lovely family history of high cholesterol. But back in 2008, there wasn’t a tPA to help her out.
I haven’t fully processed the scare of my mom’s stroke, perhaps because she was taken care of so quickly, and I was in her ER room, watching her recover before my eyes.
And unfortunately, I didn’t see her much this weekend. in this era of COVID, John Muir and many other hospitals allow only one “designated relative” to visit patients for only one hour per day. Because I had my COVID booster scheduled for the same time as my mom’s doctor’s rounds, I let my husband Tony go visit that first day, thinking my sister or I could visit the following day. But no — my husband had to be the go-to guy all weekend.
But strokes scare me, even more than heart attacks. Perhaps because I’ve seen my sister’s struggles, and seen other younger people suffer strokes and yet recover.
My only advice is to be aware of stroke symptoms. And I’ll get on my soapbox and throw in another suggestion: Get a COVID vaccination and booster so you don’t have to be hospitalized and restrict hospital visits for other families, and keep this holiday season safer than last year’s.
After all, there are many more Hallmark holiday movies to watch. But I might limit my mom to only two a day.