May is stroke awareness month, but Grant Cunningham doesn’t need any reminder of the dangers. It’s fresh in his memory.
In March, Grant was sitting in a chair visiting with two friends when he felt a strange sensation in his lip.
“The right side of my lip started to go numb,” said Cunningham. “Then my speech got really terrible. I couldn’t pronounce words properly. I couldn’t pick up my right leg at all like it was set in cement, and I couldn’t pick up my right arm at all. I was like. ‘What the heck, man?’ I stood up to go outside for some fresh air, made it about two steps, then dropped straight to my knees. Just dead weight. I couldn’t even get my hands down to break my fall and went face first right into the tile. I busted my lip open all the way across.”
Although Grant suspected that something was seriously wrong, he made the choice to wait to see if the situation would resolve itself. To his shock, it did.
“My friends got me back up and into the chair, and I sat there for a few minutes, and it all went away. Everything. I was 100 percent normal, and I was like, ‘Wow, that was weird.’”
The reprieve was short-lived.
“About five minutes later I started feeling funny again, so I got up – and then went straight down face first again. My friend told me ‘If you do that one more time we’re calling 9-1-1.’ It subsided briefly, then came back again worse than before. All I could do was lay on the floor and try to tell him to call 9-1-1. It was terrifying.”
At the hospital, Cunningham was so weak that he had to be strapped into a wheelchair to prevent him from toppling out. The emergency staff at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview quickly identified Cunningham’s trouble as a blood clot in his brain. Because he had made it to the hospital within three hours of the onset of symptoms, he was a candidate for a medicine called Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA), considered the gold-standard for ischemic stroke care. The medication, administered through an I.V. in the arm, dissolves the clot and re-establishes blood flow to the part of the brain.
“As soon as they got the tPA in, I could feel it starting to work. It was amazing. I could start to feel my face again, and I could talk and lift my leg. I’m very, very lucky.”
Cunningham helped himself immensely by getting to the hospital quickly. Unfortunately, an estimated 75 percent of stroke victims wait too long before seeking care and miss the three-hour window where tPA might make a difference.
Katie Johnson, Stroke Coordinator at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center, stresses the need for speed. “If someone suspects they are having a stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately! The clot-busting medication we use for treating stroke is time sensitive. If you experience paralysis on one side of your body, don’t wait to see if it subsides. The clock is already ticking. We would rather treat 10 people who weren’t having a stroke than miss even one who was.”
Louise Jenkins, MSN, Stroke Manager at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center also notes that “when you call 9-1-1, EMS will arrive quickly, perform a rapid medical evaluation and alert the emergency team so everything can be ready and waiting when the patient arrives at the hospital. Time is very crucial because, during every minute that passes, nearly two million brain cells die. Although people may be hesitant to summon medical help due to the perception that an E.R. visit might be costly, keep in mind the tremendous impact of untreated stroke. A lifetime of care for a person dealing with debilitating stroke is a far greater financial burden than the cost of a visit to the E.R. Make the call!”
Cunningham says he is delighted to be about 99 percent back to normal but confesses to feeling occasional paranoia. “Any time my lip starts to go numb or if I get a little pain on the side of my head, I freak out!” he laughs. “But I think it’s mostly my imagination.”
He says his experience has reminded him that life is precious. Despite his excellent outcome, he admits to making one big mistake the night of his stroke. “I told my friends to hold off taking me to the hospital to see if the symptoms would go away. I should have immediately had them call 9-1-1, but I was thinking I didn’t want to run up a big hospital bill. Looking back on it, it’s crazy that I would think about saving a few bucks when my life was on the line.”