HARLINGEN – With May serving as National Stroke Awareness Month in the United States, local health experts are saying there’s no time like the present for the community to learn more about the signs, symptoms, and treatment of stroke, while making lifestyle changes to help reduce their stroke risk.
Stroke is a type of cardiovascular disease which affects the arteries leading to the brain and the arteries within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs, and that part of the brain starts to die.
Without timely treatment, stroke can cause a litany of serious health complications, including long-term disability and even death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stroke remains the fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.
Dr. Ameer E. Hassan, DO, FAHA, FSVIN, Head of the Neuroscience Department, Director of Endovascular Surgical Neuroradiology and Director of Clinical Neuroscience Research at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen, said it is critical for Valley residents to learn the warning signs of stroke and to call 911 immediately if they or a loved one is experiencing stroke symptoms.
“It’s important to recognize these signs that a stroke is happening, because you can save a life,” he said. “The point to remember is that ‘time equals brain.’ A delay of even five or 10 minutes can make a big difference in the patient’s outcome. Every minute in delay to treatment leads to 2 million neurons dying.”
The latest indications from the CDC are that the American public is more aware of stroke than ever. According to recent surveys, more than three out of five people are aware of the major stroke symptoms, and also know to seek emergency medical attention when someone is having a stroke. While those statistics are encouraging, recent studies have shown that the current COVID-19 outbreak has had significant consequences in the arena of stroke.
While researchers are still working to understand the link between COVID-19 and stroke, doctors are noticing an alarming trend of younger coronavirus patients suffering strokes at a higher than normal rate.
One such study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, documented the potential link between COVID-19 patients under 50 and large vessel occlusions, often described by physicians as the most dangerous type of stroke because they impact the most important regions of the brain and can lead to the most serious long-term deficits.
“Over a 2-week period from March 23 to April 7, 2020, a total of five patients who were younger than 50 years of age presented with new-onset symptoms of large-vessel ischemic stroke. All five patients tested positive for Covid-19,” the study stated. “By comparison, every two weeks over the previous 12 months, our service has treated, on average, 0.73 patients younger than 50 years of age with large-vessel stroke.”
Hassan said that while researchers are still working to understand the relationship between COVID-19 and stroke, there does appear to be some correlation between the two health issues.
“Our current understanding is that there is a hypercoagulable (bloods thickens) state when infected and that is the link between COVID-19 and stroke,” he said. “These patients need to be treated as fast as possible and preferably at a comprehensive stroke center with the latest advanced treatments.”
One thing that is certain, however, is that the recent COVID-19 outbreak is unnecessarily impacting the community’s willingness to seek emergency medical treatment at the onset of stroke symptoms. Hassan said that Valley Baptist Health System and other hospitals throughout the region have established robust safety procedures and protective measures regarding COVID-19, and that delaying the treatment of stroke because of worries over contracting coronavirus at the hospital can lead to dire consequences.
“You should not delay stroke care because you’re afraid of COVID-19, stroke is very treatable,” he said.
At Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen and Brownsville, a clot-busting medication called tPA is used when medically indicated to reverse strokes – but in most cases the medication must be given within three hours from the start of symptoms of a possible stroke.
Dr. Luis Gaitan, Medical Director of the Stroke Program at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, said that it is important for eligible stroke patients to receive tPA as soon as possible as part of their treatment.
“Valley Baptist-Brownsville continues to strive for excellence in the acute treatment of stroke patients, and part of that effort is making sure our patients are receiving the appropriate care as quickly as possible,” he said. “When it comes to treating a stroke, every second counts.”
Valley Baptist-Harlingen, the first and most experienced Certified Comprehensive Stroke Center in the Valley and south of San Antonio, also offers endovascular stroke treatments, during which blood clots are extracted by specially-trained endovascular neurologists using tiny mechanical devices which are inserted into the blood vessels through thin catheters or tubes.
Valley Baptist-Brownsville and Valley Baptist-Harlingen are also recipients of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Get With The Guidelines Target: Stroke Honor Roll Elite Plus Gold Plus Quality Achievement Award.
Valley Baptist-Harlingen is the only hospital in the region to harness the power of artificial intelligence to analyze the imaging results of stroke patients. The AI alerts physicians and healthcare providers when it discovers abnormalities in the images of the patient’s brain, which in turn significantly improves treatment times through earlier diagnosis, Hassan said.
“Recent research presented at the International Stroke Conference shows that since we have implemented Viz artificial intelligence, we have decreased the time of transfer by 66 minutes and decreased the length of stay of large vessel occlusion stroke patients by 55 percent,” he said.
Hassan said that improved communication among peers and continued education in the community continues to have a positive impact on patient care and outcomes, pointing to recent improvements in the Valley in treating stroke patients.
“What we’ve done in the Valley, in terms of increasing our IV-tpA numbers from 3 percent to 18 percent in a matter of a few years, and increasing the treatment, whether it be endovascular or IV-tpA, from 3 percent of patients to 30 percent, is amazing,” he said. “That’s happened because we’ve worked well with the community. We’ve focused on educating the community and first responders as well as local EMS. This is an exciting time for the treatment of stroke. What we are doing is very relevant to the Valley, since we have so many people at risk for stroke, because so many people have high blood pressure and/or diabetes, and/or a high-cholesterol, high-fat diet.”
Survivors of stroke, along with their family members and caregivers, can also receive additional education and support during free H.O.P.E. (Haven Offering Patient Encouragement) Stroke Support Group meetings, which are held monthly at Valley Baptist-Harlingen.
For more information about the Stroke Support Group, contact Valley Baptist-Harlingen Stroke Coordinator Gene Danugrao at Josegene.Danugrao@valleybaptist.net, or call (888) 902-5433 (LIFE).
For more information about prevention and treatment for stroke, consult your physician and visit valleybaptist.net/our-services/brain-neuro.
According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, only eight percent of Americans can identify what each letter stands for in the “F.A.S.T.” acronym, which reminds people what to look for when it comes to a possible stroke:
“F” is for FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
“A” is for ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
“S” is for SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
“T” is for TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately. Also note the time that symptoms of stroke first started; that will be important information to give to the medical professionals who treat the stroke victim.
Many hospitals and organizations are even adopting a new acronym, BE FAST. Recognizing that balance issues (B) and blurred vision (E for eyes) can also be important signs of stroke, they have been added to the acronym, encouraging the community to BE FAST should they experience any of the signs or symptoms of stroke.