During American Stroke Month in May, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) is encouraging Mainers to join together to end one of the leading causes of death and preventable disability in the state and in the U.S. Despite claiming more than 133,000 lives annually and being a leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the U.S., stroke is largely preventable and treatable.
What many people don’t know is that women face a higher risk of stroke. About 55,000 more women than men die each year of stroke in the U.S. These four Maine women shared their stories with a goal to raise awareness of this important health issue.
Catie Thibodeau of Kennebunkport underwent two brain surgeries and open-heart surgery at age 20. “I had scraped my foot while away at college. Two weeks into summer vacation, I was rushed to the hospital because that scrape caused endocarditis or an infection that entered my body and attacked my heart valve – the weakest part of my body. I had aortic stenosis since birth which weakened my valve. Then, an aneurysm developed in my brain, which caused a stroke. After months of rehabilitation to regain my speech, I was able to return to college and graduate with my class. I want everyone to know that strokes can happen to anyone at any age.”
Brook Stocks of Milbridge survived at stroke at 30 years old. “I was at a Bar Harbor restaurant with my family when my sister heard me slurring and my mom saw my face drooping. She yelled, ‘call 911.’ An off-duty EMT asked me to raise my arms. Only the right one went up. I knew then that I was having a stroke. After a quick ambulance drive, I was given a clot busting drug and began a much longer ride to Portland. Within hours, I could move my left foot and squeeze my left hand again. Turns out, I have atrial fibrillation which caused a clot in my brain. I’m so thankful that my family knew the warning signs.”
Sarah Belliveau of Falmouth recounts her experience. “In a matter of seconds, I went from trying to figure out how to turn on the Keurig machine to lying on the floor, completely paralyzed on the right side of my body and unable to make a noise, much less speak. Fortunately, I made a significant amount of racket when I fell which woke up my husband. Equally fortunate for me, he had seen/heard PSA’s in May and knew exactly what was happening. Within a few minutes, the ambulance was en route, within a few minutes of their arrival, I was on my way to the hospital, and within a few minutes of arrival there they knew what was happening and had a treatment plan.”
Corinne Bailey of Yarmouth suffered a stroke in her 40s. “I was a healthy young woman who didn’t have risk factors. When I was driving home from a family ski vacation and suddenly had the most piercing headache, it didn’t occur to me that I was having a stroke. At a local hospital, I had a CAT scan which showed I had blood in my brain—I had an aneurysm rupture so I went by ambulance to Portland. After dislodging a clot during the first procedure, I had a second stroke. This one affected me to the core. It took my language. I had survived, but then the hard work started – my recovery.”
Starting 20 years ago with the ASA’s inception as a division of the AHA, advancements have revolutionized the field of stroke prevention and treatment. As many as 80 percent of strokes are preventable. And, while one in 4 stroke survivors have a second stroke, the good news is that second strokes are also largely preventable with a healthy lifestyle. Most people who have a stroke have high blood pressure, so it’s incredibly important for everyone to know their numbers and keep them under control to help prevent a stroke.
New ASA guidelines released late last year called for earlier intervention for high blood pressure to avoid its devastating, life-alerting consequences. The new definition of high blood pressure is a systolic pressure, or top number, of 130 or higher, or diastolic pressure of 80 or higher. The data show that the risk for heart attack, stroke and other consequences of high blood pressure begins to occur at any level above 120 mmHg. In fact, risk doubles at 130 compared to levels below 120. When blood pressure rises above 120 systolic, even while diastolic remains below 80, blood pressure is considered “elevated” and a patient would be advised to take action with lifestyle changes. Under the updated guidelines, nearly half of all adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. However, nearly one in six American adults who have high blood pressure don’t know it, according to the ASA.
The ASA also recommends making small, simple changes, like exercising regularly and limiting sodium intake, both which can help lower blood pressure. Try limiting sodium to 1,500 mg/daily by reducing processed or pre-packaged foods—the leading source of dietary sodium–and reading labels to help identify lower-sodium products. Meditation and exercise—even yoga—can help you lower stress. And keep alcohol intake to one serving per day for women, and two for men. And if you don’t drink, don’t start.
Awareness is also key when it comes to stroke treatment. For many strokes, the right treatment right away can save lives and improve recovery so it’s important to get help immediately. The ASA’s Together to End Stroke™ initiative, sponsored nationally by Medtronic, teaches the acronym F.A.S.T. to help people to recognize the most common stroke warning signs and what to do if one occurs:
- F – Face Drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
- A – Arm Weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- S – Speech Difficulty: Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like, “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
- T – Time to call 911: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.
Calling 911 is the fastest proven way to access treatment because hospitals are set up to treat stroke patients arriving by ambulance. Stroke patients who receive the clot-busting drug alteplase (also known as tPA) within 90 minutes of symptom onset are almost 3 x more likely to recover with little or no disability. Under new guidelines, more stroke patients may be eligible to receive alteplase (also known as tPA) to decrease disability, if given promptly. New stroke guidelines have increased the timeframe for patients to qualify for treatment using a clot-removal device to recover with little or no disability. However, urgency is still required during a stroke event.
The American Stroke Association’s Together To End Stroke® initiative, nationally sponsored by Medtronic, is dedicated to elevating awareness of the most common warning signs and symptoms of stroke by teaching the acronym F.A.S.T., (F)ace drooping, (A)rm weakness, or (S)peech difficulty, it’s (T)ime to call 911. Acting F.A.S.T. will make a difference in someone’s quality of life. For more information about stroke or American Stroke Month activities, follow #StrokeMonth on social media, or visit StrokeAssociation.org/strokemonth.