Evolution of Stroke Care: Paralyzed One Minute, Walking Away the Next

May 10, 2016

Daniel Labovitz, M.D.
U.S. News & World Report

May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and there is no time like the present to take five minutes to get informed on this serious medical issue, which impacts someone every 40 seconds.

Each year in the U.S., approximately 800,000 people experience a stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted by a blocked or ruptured blood vessel. Similar to heart attacks, strokes can be lethal and have some of the same risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure and a poor diet. Also similar to a heart attack, immediate medical help can prevent long-term disability.

[See: 10 Ways to Lower Your Risk of Stroke.]

The symptoms of stroke come on suddenly, often with no warning, and include weakness or numbness on one side of the body, loss of vision on one side, difficulty speaking or understanding speech or difficulty walking. If suspecting a stroke, don't wait, and don't take an aspirin – call 911 immediately. The faster someone comes in, the more the doctors can do to try to turn it around and minimize side effects. Nobody will be angry if it turns out not to be a stroke – that's for the doctors to figure out.

In New York, health figures show that African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to being a victim of stroke. In fact, African Americans have nearly twice the risk for a first-ever stroke than Caucasians. At Montefiore's Stern Stroke Center, where I work in the Bronx, we treat more than 1,200 acute strokes every year, making us the second busiest stroke center in New York State. We see the need for personalized, culturally sensitive interventions and innovative treatments to care for stroke. In addition to focusing on people with the greatest risk factors for stroke, we have taught classes to elementary school students – and have seen that by educating kids, many whom are living in multigenerational homes, with grandparents, parents and younger children, we can show whole families how to spot the signs of a stroke. Teaching the next generation of children and having them be "Stroke Heroes" has been incredibly rewarding – but what's excited me the most about the work I do is seeing the amazing progress we have made in stroke treatment over the last few years.

[See: The 12 Best Diets for Your Heart.]

Recently, my team was involved in research that demonstrated success with endovascular therapy. The minimally invasive procedure, known as mechanical clot retrieval, or a thrombectomy, literally sucks a clot out of the brain – and is helping stroke treatment and recovery get better and better. When used in combination with standard medication, restoration of blood flow to the brain is improved, and better long term outcomes are being seen.

For patients arriving at the hospital, particularly those who are partially paralyzed and within a few hours of their stroke, we get to work right away. Within 30 minutes and one attempt, we can successfully remove the clot in the brain and restore normal blood flow. As we finish these procedures, we've seen patients recover from being unable to speak or move an arm to feeling almost normal and wondering how soon they can go home.

[See: 17 Ways Heart Health Varies in Women and Men.]

As we reflect on this month, we stress to our community that if you suspect stroke, call 911 to improve the chance of a speedy recovery. What I think about the most is the fact that I can now see patients walk out of the hospital on their own two feet, within a few days of a major stroke. For a medical professional, it just doesn't get any better than that.

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