by John Hanna, M.D., director of the Atlantic Health System Stroke Program and medical director at Overlook Medical Center’s Comprehensive Stroke Center in Summit.
If you experience stroke symptoms, don’t test time. The cost of delayed treatment could be permanent neurological disabilities, or death. I say this bluntly in the hopes of saving lives.
As we mark a second World Stroke Day during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can boil advice down to three points:
- learn to recognize the signs of stroke;
- if you show symptoms, call an ambulance to get to a comprehensive stroke center immediately; and
- get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Stroke claimed 6.6 million deaths worldwide in 2019, the American Heart Association reported.
In the U.S., stroke is the fifth leading cause of death, responsible for 150,000 deaths in 2019. Nearly 800,000 Americans have a stroke each year.
Let’s start with getting vaccinated. Early in the pandemic, we were seeing an increase in strokes in patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Following the rollout of vaccines, the number of stroke patients has returned to near pre-pandemic levels. Some patients won’t get vaccinated, believing that it will cause a stroke. Researchers, however, have determined that the virus increases the risk of strokes in some people, even in their 40s and 50s. The vaccine is their only protection — for both themselves and others.
With a stroke, millions of neurons die with every minute that passes. Quick intervention can minimize — and in some cases reverse — serious damage. The best course of action is to call 911. Paramedics can relay critical information en route to a stroke center. Once there, the patient will undergo diagnostic procedures to pinpoint the cause and determine the best course of immediate treatment.
Some patients fearful of contracting the coronavirus at the hospital insist on a telehealth appointment. I can diagnose a stroke virtually, but I cannot treat the patient that way.
Atlantic Health System’s five award winning stroke centers take extraordinary precautions to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure. Emergency room staff wear full protective gear. Patients who test positive for COVID-19 are kept apart from other patients. The risk of exposure is very low.
Everyone, not just older adults, should learn the telltale signs of a stroke, expressed in the acronym, BE FAST:
- B stands for trouble with balance;
- E for eyes and vision problems;
- F for facial droopiness;
- A for arm (or leg) weakness;
- S for speech problems; and
- T is for time.
The more people who can recognize a stroke happening, the more lives we can spare from serious disability or death.
Atlantic Health System has five award winning Stroke Centers: Chilton Medical Center in Pequannock; Hackettstown Medical Center; Morristown Medical Center and Newton Medical Center.