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“Warning” Strokes: Too Serious to Ignore

By Nancy Johnston Hall

This is a true story about a life and death medical emergency that was almost ignored. The problem appeared suddenly and went away quickly, so it was very easy to say it wasn’t anything serious.

It began when Earl, a healthy man in his late ’70s, woke up one morning unable to talk well. “Your dad’s speech was kind of slurred when he got up,” his wife told their daughter, Ruth, on the phone. “But we went out to breakfast and he can talk fine now.”

“He couldn’t talk, but you still went out to breakfast?” Ruth asked her mother with alarm. “Did you call the doctor?”

“No, because it went away,” her mother answered.

Ruth called a friend who was a neurologist and described her father’s problem. The doctor said without hesitation, “Sounds like your dad had a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke. The symptoms go away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It’s a warning, and he should get to an emergency room right away.”

TIAs should be treated as an emergency

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is also called a “warning” stroke or mini-stroke. TIAs produce stroke-like symptoms, but no lasting damage. Even though they are temporary, TIAs are certainly not harmless. More than a third of people who have a TIA will later have a stroke. A recent Oxford University study found that one in 20 people who had a TIA went on to have a full-blown stroke within a week; one in ten had a stroke within three months.

TIAs happen when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery in the brain. That part of the brain is suddenly deprived of oxygen. The type of symptoms depends on the part of the brain affected. The length of time symptoms last varies too—from about a minute up to a day.

You should view a TIA as an emergency, just as you would view chest pain. By getting medical treatment quickly, you can minimize the possibility of permanent damage and help prevent the long-lasting, serious effects of a stroke.

Earl saw a neurologist the afternoon of his TIA, only because his daughter made him go. A scan of his neck showed a blood clot in his right carotid artery, the one that pulses on the side of your neck. The doctor told him that his TIA had undoubtedly been caused by a tiny piece of the clot that broke away and became lodged in a brain artery. The next day Earl had surgery to remove the clot. The doctor later told him that the clot could have killed him. Instead, he lived another 11 productive years, until the age of 90. His “warning” stroke and his daughter’s intervention saved his life.

TIA symptoms (From the American Heart Association)

Don’t ignore these symptoms! Get medical help immediately.
• Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
• Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with more than 30 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. This year Nancy became a part-time resident of San Miguel de Allende.


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