Maggie knew something was terribly wrong when she arrived to pick up her “Nannie” for their weekly coffee outing.
Dressed in red with a perfectly coiffed corona of white hair, Jerry Vaughan looked as stylish as usual. But Nannie, who was known for her chipper chattiness, didn’t say anything.
Alarmed, Maggie called her mom, who alerted Jerry’s next door neighbor, a close family friend who was also a doctor. “Get her to Saint Luke’s,” he urged, suspecting a stroke. He called ahead to alert her arrival.
There, a neurological team from Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute was waiting to assess her. Doctors asked her, “What color is the sky?” and “What day of the week is today?” Her answers sounded like gibberish. A CT scan revealed a blood clot plugging Jerry’s left middle cerebral artery, depriving the left side of her brain of oxygen and nutrients. This essentially shut down that part of her brain, which caused her difficulty speaking and understanding.
“Strokes that affect speech are often more disabling,” said neurologist Suzanne Crandall, D.O. “They don’t always respond well to therapy either.”
Jerry wasn’t a candidate for tPA, the only drug treatment for a stroke caused by a blood clot. Typically tPA must be administered within four and a half hours to help. No one from Jerry’s immediate family could confirm when the stroke occurred.
“I think I am going to die, but I’ve had a good life,” Jerry thought. “I’m glad I’m at Saint Luke’s. It says something when you think you have 30 minutes to live and you still feel safe.”
Time saved, brain saved
Fortunately, Saint Luke’s neurointerventionalists are the region’s most experienced at removing clots from brain arteries and restoring blood flow. In fact, they pioneered the use of clot retrieval devices like the one used on Jerry, and they rank among the nation’s best for stroke reversal.
Neurointerventionalist Coleman Martin, M.D., performed Jerry’s brain-saving procedure. He threaded a catheter from an artery in Jerry’s leg up to her brain and grabbed the clot. He removed the 1-centimeter clot in less than an hour. The next thing Jerry remembered was waking up that evening surrounded by the worried faces of her loving family gathered around her hospital bed.
“Hi guys,” she said brightly.
According to Dr. Crandall, patients rarely bounce back that quickly after the procedure, but Jerry had a lot to say. She wanted to know where Dr. Martin was trained, what caused her stroke, and what she could do to prevent having another one.
Dr. Crandall had diagnosed the likely cause as a heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation, which is common in older adults.
“I don’t want to be a problem to anybody,” Jerry told her doctors. “What can I do to keep this from happening again? I am still teachable.”
She got prescriptions for an anti-clotting medicine, as well as speech and physical therapy. She whizzed through the sessions, amazing her therapists with her can-do spirit.
Dr. Crandall warned Jerry that it might take time to get her memory back. “Don’t worry if you don’t remember who took you to the senior prom,” she said.
“Of course I remember that,” Jerry replied. By the time she was discharged from the hospital, she had dozens of new names to remember because she befriended everyone she met.
“Every single person who helped me—from the head nurse to maintenance—worked together with such camaraderie,” said Jerry, who got to know them and learn about their lives. “I told them to call me Nannie.”
She left the hospital with new friends and new determination to stick around with more healthy habits.
She consulted a dietitian and started walking laps around a grocery store three times a week for exercise. She avoids red meat, eats more vegetables, and weighs 15 pounds less than she did before the stroke.
She’s making the most of her second chance at life, doting on her family, which includes 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and looking forward to upcoming family events.
“Thanks to a miracle of medical proficiency, I got a postscript on my life,” she said.
And Jerry is the kind of woman who knows how to enjoy it.
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