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Personal Health Stroke: A Brain Attack Where Minutes Matter


By Nancy Johnston Hall, Illustration by The American Stroke Association

The parallels between a stroke and a heart attack are striking. The most important parallel is that both are medical emergencies for which getting to a hospital fast can mean the difference between life and death, a return to health versus a life-changing disability. Both conditions can be stopped by an amazing clot-busting drug—if you get medical help in time.

Over the last decade, the use of a new drug for stroke treatment has improved survival rates greatly. To be effective, this drug, Alteplase IV r-tPA, must be administered within three hours of symptom onset (or up to four-and-a-half hours in certain eligible patients.) That is why it is important to recognize the signs of a stroke so you or a loved one can get life-saving treatment fast.

About 85 percent of strokes are ischemic strokes, which occur when a brain vessel is blocked by a blood clot. The remaining 15 percent are caused when a vessel ruptures or bursts. In both cases, part of the brain is starved of blood and the oxygen the blood carries. Without oxygen, brain cells die. Yet a significant number of stroke victims do not get to the hospital in time for Alteplase IV r-tPA treatment or one of the other treatments that a specially trained doctor can use to remove the clot.

Fast is the acronym that the American Stroke Association wants you to remember. Each of the four letters represents a stroke symptom or life-saving message. Watch for these symptoms if you think you or someone else may be having a stroke. Note when the symptoms began; this will help medical personnel make treatment decisions.


F FACE DROOPING Does one side of the face droop or is it numb?

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? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like “The sky is blue.” Is the person able to correctly repeat the words?

T TIME TO CALL 9-1-1 If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and say, “I think this is a stroke” to help the person get to the hospital immediately.

Unsure? Call 9-1-1 anyway. Do not wait!


Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Two years ago, Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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