Gary Brown

Stroke Survival: Need For Speed

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At left, Gary Brown and his wife, Pamela, pose with their grandchildren, Reesa and Parker, who is sitting on his big sister's lap.

Whether it was because of God, his wife, the EMTs, or the hospital medical team, stroke survivor Gary Brown knows he was lucky. Many people don’t survive strokes. Of those patients who do, few survive unscathed. But from the moment Brown’s wife saw something was wrong to the moment hospital staff began administering a potentially life-saving drug, everything happened just right.

“My wife called 9-1-1 within one minute,” says Brown, 64, who was overcome by a “strange” sensation when he reached for and dropped a glass of water while watching TV with his wife one evening in their Castle Rock home. “My wife said, ‘Are you all right?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ” Those were the last clear words he would utter that night. Within 10 minutes, the ambulance crew arrived, whisking Brown off to nearby Sky Ridge Medical Center, where an expert staff was ready and waiting.

“That’s just huge,”Dr. Emily Lampe, one of Brown’s Sky Ridge Medical Center neurologists, says of the rapid response.“That doesn’t happen very often.” When it comes to receiving the advanced treatments doctors now have for stroke patients, time is critical. For one, the longer medical care is delayed, the more likely patients will suffer permanent brain damage. Waiting too long can also cost patients their chance of receiving the IV drug (tPA) that helped bust up Brown’s clot.

“TPA (tissue plasminogen activator) must be given within four-and-a-half hours of when symptoms start, maximum,” Dr. Lampe says. “The sooner we give it, the better it works, so we don’t delay,” she says, noting that Sky Ridge Medical Center stands out for its stroke program and quick treatment times, including new door to treatment time of 20 minutes. Brown was approved for and receiving tPA within one hour of his symptom onset.

Strokes, caused by either a clot (ischemic) or a rupture (hemorrhagic) in a vessel that feeds the brain, rob the brain of oxygen-carrying blood. The longer the starvation continues, the more cells will die. Many stroke patients Dr. Lampe treats miss the tPA window, often waiting to see if the symptoms subside. “Don’t wait,” Dr. Lampe says. “We’ve had some false alarms, but it’s better safe than sorry.”

Not all stroke patients are candidates for tPA, including those having hemorrhagic strokes or who have exceptionally large clots, but doctors have other treatment options, and time is always vital. Also, stroke patients respond differently to tPA, with some recovering 100 percent and others not improving at all. “It’s not a cure-all by any means,” Dr. Lampe says. Studies have found an average improved outcome of 30 percent. “But, when you are talking about hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of the body) or inability to talk, 30 percent can be very significant in terms of rehabilitation and getting back to their lives.”

Brown was one of the luckier ones. At first, while the tPA was being administered, he was getting worse, his inability to speak compounded by a numbness slowly affecting one side of his body. Brown, whose stroke was attributed to atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder he’d been diagnosed with 25 years earlier but had stopped taking prescription blood thinners to treat, urged his wife to go home and sleep.

“She said she was praying up until 3 in the morning, and then she suddenly had a feeling of peace and went to bed,” he says. “That was when my speech started making sense again.” By about 6 a.m., Brown was nearly back to normal. “The neurologist said, ‘You look like one of the few people who will have no deficits at all,’ ” Brown recalls.

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At right, Parker makes Grandpa, Gary Brown, smile. Brown, a Sky Ridge Medical Center patient, survived a major stroke with no permanent side effects, thanks largely to a rapid medical response.

The retired Brown and his wife are back to life, spending time with their children and two grandchildren and serving as camp hosts at a mountain site. He is treating his A-fib more aggressively and encourages other A-fib sufferers to take blood thinners despite their downsides.

His advice for anyone who does become a stroke statistic: “No. 1, pray. No 2, get on the tPA if you’re eligible fast. Don’t wait. We didn’t, and I’m grateful for that.” 

And, always call 9-1-1.