Surviving a stroke begins with quick reaction

By Gina Comparini Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday January 19, 2002

When the brain is in jeopardy, minutes matter.  

A clogged or broken blood vessel in the brain is an emergency but many people will wait to call 911after experiencing sudden confusion, loss of balance or other stroke symptoms, Deidre Wentworth, a registered nurse, told members of the Berkeley Fire Department at the Cedar Street station on Thursday. 

“The impact of stroke is huge: It is the leading cause of adult disability,” Wentworth said. “Health professionals play a key role in educating the public about the importance of getting to the emergency room early.” 

About 20 Berkeley firefighters, which include emergency medical technicians and paramedics, listened and discussed their experiences with stroke patients during the course given by Wentworth, a consultant for The Stroke Group – a Denver-based organization, which provides education to health care professionals. Wentworth said she she spoke to about 60 of the city’s emergency workers during the two-day seminar. 

Each year, 750,000 people suffer from ischemic strokes, caused by blood clots, and hemorrhagic strokes, caused by ruptured blood vessels, Wentworth said. Drugs intended to break up blood clots can be effective, but they must be administered within three hours after the onset of symptoms, which is why early recognition and timely transport are vital, she said. 

Methods of recognizing some stroke symptoms have changed over the years, said Wentworth, who also manages Mercy Stroke Center for Catholic Health Care West in Sacramento.  

Years ago, patients were asked to squeeze health care workers’ hands as a way to gauge limb strength, but what is considered a firm grasp can be subjective, she said. Today, it is considered more effective to have a patient close their eyes and hold out both their arms.  

This way, health care workers can see if one arm falls from lack of strength, she said. 

Treatments for stroke patients have improved, and paramedics and other emergency workers are always learning about changes in the field, said Ed Pennine, a Berkeley paramedic and firefighter. 

“As first responders, Berkeley is committed to providing continuing education on any procedure, equipment and care to optimize what it provides to citizens,” said Ann-Margaret Moyer, paramedic program supervisor for Berkeley Fire Department. “This class brings everyone up to speed on how debilitating stroke is and how early recognition and intervention are key.” 

According to literature by the National Stroke Association, symptoms of stroke include: 

• Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body. 

• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding. 

• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes. Wentworth said patients will sometimes “talk about a shade coming over their eye.” 

• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination. 

• Sudden severe headache with no known cause. 

Strokes are not disorders that affect only older adults, said Karen Ashikeh, a research nurse for the East Bay Region Associates in Neurology.  

Young people and people who use recreational drugs can also experience strokes, she said. 

“When a person thinks they are having a stroke, it is important they call 911 just as if they thought they were having a heart attack,” Ashikeh said. “Sometimes people will call the doctor, or they’ll go to the doctor, but they won't call 911. They think, ‘well, I’m still walking around.’ There is excellent treatment available, but time is limited.”