As Marty Gordon spent time with his wife and grandkids at home, he started feeling more tired than usual, his words turned to mumbling, and when he tried to take a drink, it spilled out the side of his mouth.
His wife, a former nurse of 37 years, knew exactly what was wrong. One day after his 64th birthday in 2016, Gordon suffered a severe stroke and silent heart attack.
Fortunately for Gordon, neurosurgeons at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central’s Stroke Center were ready to remove the blood clot from his brain when he arrived. Not long after the surgery, Gordon regained full use of his left side, and he continues to play guitar and sing with his band, The Westside Rhythm Kings, across Colorado Springs, including occasional performances at Memorial events.
It’s the kind of outcome doctors such as Shaye Moskowitz and Janice Miller strive for in Southern Colorado’s first certified Comprehensive Stroke Center, but the team is passionate about educating and informing the public about strokes even before they strike. With a “brain attack,” every minute matters. Early recognition and treatment can greatly increase the chances of recovery—and returning to a normal life like Gordon was able to.
Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., taking the lives of 133,000 people every year, according to the American Stroke Association. Stroke is also the leading cause of long-term adult disability in the U.S., and Moskowitz points to its devastating ability to rob victims of a normal life. “If I have a stroke, I may have 30 years of not being able to work, walk, interact socially, plus decades of problems,” he says.
Strokes can be a result of modifiable risk factors such as blood pressure, weight and exercise, says Miller, medical director of the Stroke Center. Age, ethnicity and access to primary preventative care can play a role, she says, but stroke can happen to anyone.
Ischemic stroke, caused by an obstructed artery to the brain, is the most common type, accounting for 85-88 percent of all strokes. The other 12-15 percent is the more severe hemorrhagic stroke, when an artery bursts and causes bleeding in the brain, Miller says.
An IV treatment is used to dissolve blood clots and improve blood flow in stroke patients, but it has to be administered within three hours of a stroke, according to the American Stroke Association. Blood clots can also physically be removed through an endovascular surgical procedure that should be done within 24 hours.
That’s why doctors promote the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T. as an easy tool for people to identify the signs and symptoms of a stroke—and to call emergency services. B.E. F.A.S.T. stands for balance, eyes, face, arms, speech and time to call 911. (See “B.E. F.A.S.T.” below.)
“The main thing is B.E. F.A.S.T., and we emphasize that stroke treatment does not begin at our hospital,” Miller says. “It begins at your home, your office, out in the wilderness or wherever your stroke starts.”
“If somebody’s out in the community and has no idea if they’re having a stroke, or doesn’t recognize if someone else is, it doesn’t matter how good EMS are or we are at the hospital, we can’t help as much as we want,” Moskowitz says.
He envisions a day when stroke awareness will be as widespread as that of heart attack. Twenty years ago, if someone had chest pain, they were told to lie down and rest, Moskowitz says. “That’s not how it works anymore,” he says. Nowadays, discomfort in the chest area is taken seriously because time is crucial. “There’s no misunderstanding about what it means.”
In 2016, UCHealth launched its Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit for even more immediate stroke treatment. The ambulance carries a CT scanner, a video communication system with a neurologist and blood-clot dissolving medication to start acute care even more quickly.
For the long-term, Miller says people can help decrease the chances of stroke by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, monitoring their blood pressure and not smoking.
“It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of all strokes are truly preventable,” Miller says.
“I’m diabetic and because of that I go to the doctor on a regular basis. I thought I was in pretty darn good shape, but you can’t take anything for granted,” Gordon says. “I’m just very grateful for people who were trained to do what they did and that it all worked out.”
Know these warning signs to quickly identify stroke and seek medical help.
B – Balance
Sudden loss of balance or coordination.
E – Eyes
Double vision or unable to see out of one eye.
F – Face
One side of the face is drooping.
A – Arms
One arm is drifting downward.
S – Speech
Slurred speech or difficulty with words.
T – Time
Time to call 911.