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“Puckett Will Park It”: Reflecting on Stroke In Young People During the World Series

I was born in Houston, Texas, and have fond memories of going to the Astrodome in the 1980s with my grandfather to watch the Astros play baseball. They knew that orange was the new black way before Netflix existed, as did their fans. This year, needless to say, I excitedly cheered them on this year’s impassioned team during the World Series, and while they ended short during game 7, man – what a fun journey. Congratulations to the Washington Nationals on a hard-earned victory, and to my Astros on a fantastic season!

As I have watched games this year with my baseball-enthused fiancé (who became my husband on October 12th, thus my new last name!), I began reminiscing on World Series from years past. In particular, I remember watching the Atlanta Braves (the popular team in my area as I was growing up in South Carolina) take on the Minnesota Twins. It was another seven game wild ride, with the Twins as the victors ultimately in game 7. I could not go away disappointed, though, because over the course of the Series I grew to like the Twins. In particular, a player named Kirby Puckett captured my attention. Fans in the stands held up signs that read: “Puckett Will Park It.” When he retired from baseball in 1996, his batting average was the highest of any right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. He was strong, enthusiastic, and brought his A game when it mattered. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2001 (his first year of eligibility).

After reminiscing about Kirby Puckett’s years in baseball, I asked my at-the-time fiancé, “Whatever happened to Kirby Puckett?”

He replied: “He died a while back.”

Whoa! Say what?

When I took to the internet to figure out what happened to Kirby Puckett, I learned that he died from a hemorrhagic stroke at the age of 44, thought to be due to high blood pressure. His health had declined after leaving baseball, and stroke did not have mercy on him simply because of his relatively young age. He was the second youngest baseball player inducted into the hall of fame while still living (Lou Gehrig being the youngest). Having been an elite athlete earlier in life was not enough to save him from the devastating effects of stroke or the diseases that increase the risk for it.

For those of you with hypertension (high blood pressure), I implore you to follow up regularly with your healthcare providers. High blood pressure may not “hurt” in most cases, but unfortunately the first real symptom of it can be a stroke, heart attack, kidney failuure. Hypertension is the number one modifiable risk factor for stroke (meaning – the top condition leading to stroke that we can actually do something about; age is the top risk factor, but nobody has figured out how to stop the clock yet).

High blood pressure is not to be ignored, and it is not to be taken lightly.

Stroke awareness arrived early this year

On the evening of February 13, 2019, I awoke from a deep sleep and could not feel or move my entire right leg. I recognized that it belonged to me, but when my brain would command it to move, nothing happened. It just laid there, a significant portion of my body, not responding.

I did not have a stroke.

Several weeks earlier, when I jumped over an inlet of water on the beach, as I landed my right leg bent sideways (ouch!), and I felt my knee effectively come apart. Sorry if this is gross, but it’s the truth – I could feel two bones (femur and tibia) separate when I landed, and then snap violently back together. I was instantly filled with dread, wishing I could hit the rewind button and not have made that jump.

The same thing happened to me during my regional track and field meet my senior year in high school 22 years earlier after a landing-gone-bad during the long jump event. At that time, I had torn my ACL and MCL (two ligaments that provide structural stability to the knee) as well as my meniscus (the cartilage cushion for the knee). It required surgical reconstruction, six weeks of immobility after surgery, and then months of extremely painful rehabilitation to return to walking/running. When I landed on the beach in the same way as I had landed during that fateful long jump in high school, I thought – surely I haven’t torn my ACL and meniscus again. What are the chances?

It turns out that it’s pretty common to tear a grafted ACL after an earlier ACL injury. As a physician, I believe I learn something new every day. The MRI the following week confirmed that I had torn my grafted ACL and my meniscus while also fracturing the top of the tibia (known as the tibial plateau – a common fracture to sustain with an ACL tear).

It is not melodramatic to say that I had moments of terror at the thought of going through surgery again. When I underwent surgery at 18, I had not yet become a neurologist, and had not seen a multitude of strokes that occurred in healthy patients while they were under anesthesia for procedures, but now I had. I feared I was going to awaken during surgery. I feared that I would develop a wound infection after surgery that would spread and that bacteria from that infection would start growing on my heart valves and in my brain (physicians can make horrible patients, by the way). I feared that I would experience a complication during surgery beyond what anyone thought possible and would end up in a medical journal as a case report. I had listened to the “Dr. Death” podcast – what if the surgeon did something completely awful to my knee and I was never able to walk again? My perspective was heavily biased, because I was so much more aware of the worst-case-scenarios this time around.

My fiancé continued to reassure me that I would be okay, and that I would return to running by the spring. He clarified that he would help me after surgery while I couldn’t drive for six weeks, and while I couldn’t get up and down the stairs in my house.

Anyway – I underwent surgery on February 13, 2019 to have my Humpty Dumpty knee put back together yet again. When I awoke from anesthesia 22 years earlier, almost immediately I experienced tremendous pain, and then severe nausea from any pain medication given to me. I don’t know if the pain or the nausea was worse. This time, though, I felt absolutely no pain upon awakening, because I felt nothing in my leg. A femoral nerve catheter had been placed by the anesthesiologist, effectively putting my leg to sleep. It was a surreal, bizarre feeling to have lost all sensation and movement in a limb essential for walking. For three days, I felt humbled every time I could not get myself onto a commode or could not shower or bathe without substantial assistance. I could not perform my activities of daily living (“ADLs,” we call them in the stroke and rehab world).

This loss of autonomy and independence sent me into a deeply reflective state as I recognized what my patients who have survived their strokes experience. I had the great privilege of knowing that once the nerve catheter was removed I would regain movement and sensation in my leg. Stroke survivors lack that guarantee. Some of it may return, or it may not. I had confidence that in the coming days/weeks I would be bathing, toileting, and getting around independently, that this was a temporary inconvenience. Stroke survivors lack that confidence. While my fiancé was a wonderful source of support in caring for me, being so dependent on another person when independence has been a given is frustrating. I felt guilty for being an imposition to him, even though he assured me he didn’t see it that way. How guilt-ridden so many stroke survivors must feel when they are in that position, potentially for years or even decades.

Fortunately, none of the worst-case-scenarios happened. Dr. Jonathan Riboh performed my surgery at Duke, and there were no wound infections, misplaced hardware, and no strokes while under anesthesia. This past week he gave me my clearance to start running again, and as I felt repaired knee carry me reliably during my run this morning, deep gratitude filled me to the brim. My knee seems to be in fantastic shape, perhaps even more stable than it was before my beach mishap! Thank you, Dr. Riboh.

Dr. Michael Kent, my anesthesiologist, not only ensured that I did not awaken during surgery, but that I woke up after surgery in good shape, and that I did not endure the excrutiating pain that had made me so miserable 22 years earlier. His placement of the nerve catheter also gave me a lesson in stroke awareness that, despite spending my days evaluating and treating stroke patients, had its own uniqueness to it. Thank you, Dr. Kent.

How often does a physician get to walk in the shoes of her patients temporarily, to feel what it truly is like to lose use of a limb? I recognize that I did not experience trouble swallowing, neuropathic pain, the loss of my dominant hand, the ability to speak, or any number of other disabling deficits that so many stroke patients face. But I remain grateful for the experience all the same.

May is Stroke Awareness Month. I encourage stroke survivors who feel comfortable doing so to share their stories as a way to raise awareness in their communities. Stroke is number one cause of long term disability in the United States and the fifth leading cause of death. We have highly effective therapies for treating strokes when we are able to treat patients early, before the brain has been significantly and irreversibly injured. The later a patient arrives at the emergency department, the less likely it is that his or her stroke can be treated. Awareness that symptoms such as a facial droop, difficulty speaking, slurred speech, and loss of movements/strength in an arm and/or leg could mean a stroke is occurring often makes the difference between calling 911 and staying at home to wait it out.

Love Is: Why Luke Perry’s Death Disturbs A Generation

Have you ever had the experience of going five, ten, maybe even 20 years and not given a single thought to something, only to find that when it pops up on your radar again, it repetitively re-enters your world in an almost surreal way?

I am having that experience right now with a television show that was incredibly popular when I was in middle school and high school called Beverly Hills, 90210. I arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii a month ago for the International Stroke Conference, and as I was checking in at the hotel, I noticed a blues and jazz club entrance in the hotel lobby – The Blue Note. I did not have anything on the agenda for the evening. My father had just turned 70 in December, and surfing the waves on Hawaii’s North Shore had always been on his to-do list. His flight was due to arrive very late into the night. After checking in, I walked to the kiosk to buy a ticket to The Blue Note, and learned that Vanessa Williams was the singer performing that night!

Excuse me for a moment, but AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!

Those who know me best understand that I am quite possibly bordering on obsessive when it comes to music of the ’80s and early ’90s, and nostalgia for that time period, no matter how ridiculous some aspects of those years may have been, runs deep within me. Don’t get me wrong – I savor the present and have a “Carpe Diem!” mindset, and don’t dwell in the past, per se. But I was only a kid then, and man I loved music and TV growing up! I have attended a lot of concerts of ’80s and early ’90s artists and bands, but had not had the opportunity to hear Vanessa Williams perform, even though I very much wanted to do so.

Vanessa did not disappoint. I had the privilege of reliving my childhood through her songs from a serendipitous front table at the base of the stage in the intimate venue of about 120 fans (apparently people had been watching The Super Bowl earlier in the evening?!). Save the Best for Last, Colors of the Wind, The Sweetest Days… but it was Love Is that hit me emotionally for some reason. With the opening notes, my mind immediately leapt back to the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack, the pictures of Luke Perry that some girls had in their lockers, and how much I enjoyed hearing that song on the radio during 1993, a pivotal year as I transitioned from middle school to high school.

After the show, despite being extremely exhausted at this point since it was about midnight in Hawaii and I had flown from North Carolina that day, I was up for hours more, reflecting on middle school days. The joy of newfound independence and responsibility that came with having a locker. The rejection from someone I thought was a friend. Being 5’7″ tall in seventh grade but dancing my heart out at school dances even if I was taller than all of the guys. Learning from some of the most wonderful teachers imaginable. Laughing until I cried. Crying until there were no more tears.

That’s middle school. Or at least, that was middle school before social media and the internet.

I then stayed up even longer, reading online about Shannen Doherty’s battle with breast cancer, and Luke Perry’s acting career since his days as Dylan McKay on 90210. My dad then arrived just before dawn, and we had coffee together while watching the sunrise. What a great start to the trip!

About a week later, on the long journey back to North Carolina, I heard two people in the Seattle airport discussing the television show, Melrose Place. (For those of you who are unaware, it was a spin-off of 90210). Again, strangely, after not giving 90210 a single thought for at least 25 years, there it was in the forefront of my consciousness. Weird? Or just a coincidence?

Then, yesterday I learned, as did the rest of the world, that Luke Perry unexpectedly died at age 52 from a “massive stroke.”

Wow.

Unfortunately, I see young people who are disabled or killed by strokes with relative frequency as a vascular neurologist, and focus much of my effort around advocating for young stroke survivors (thus, this blog). It is sobering when I no longer feel surprised when a young person arrives in an emergency department with a stroke. The media is treating stroke in young people as “rare,” but it is not.

And yet, for some reason, despite being fully aware that stroke can strike the young and the old, I was surprised when I heard this tragic news about Luke Perry.

Why?

Perhaps it’s because 90210 had already been floating around in my mind since hearing Vanessa Williams perform Love Is.

Perhaps it is because I thought of my middle school-aged self during Luke’s reign on 90210, and I was so young, naïve, and innocent then. I had never seen death. I may not have even known what a stroke was then.

Or perhaps I felt stunned because Luke wasn’t really 52 in my mind. His presence on our television screens was one of youth, and that youth persists in my visual memory of him. He stayed young, even as time moved on off of the set.

Luke’s death is different than many celebrity deaths, because it touches on a vulnerability. Someone still in his prime years, young, and in a way, forever young in our minds, had a stroke. If it happened to him, it could happen to anyone.

But then again…he was 52. Is that young? Yes, I think it is, but it’s not 20 (although young stroke survivors know that one is never too young to have a stroke, but hopefully you will take my point here). Luke Perry was 52. And he died from a “massive stroke.”

And then another thought occurs…I was only in middle school when he was on billboards, in commercials, and on television; I was most definitely on the younger end of the 90210 generation, but despite being on that younger side, a few months ago I turned 40! How is that possible? 90210 (in its original form) was only on TV a few years ago. Was 52 young to me when I was 20? It certainly seems to be young now that I’m 40.

Wait. About the original 90210 being on TV only a few years ago. Make that…28 years ago that it premiered. Where did that time go? There has been much to show for it, but still…wow.

Luke’s death forces members of a generation to face the reality that we may feel young and act young, but we are getting older. Yet, it also demonstrates in the harshest of ways that people who are young can lose their lives very quickly to stroke. I have often written on The Stroke Blog that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone. I stand by that assertion.

I sincerely hope a day will come when we can rid the world of this awful disease.

Rest in peace, Luke Perry.

Where did I go?

Since completing my vascular neurology fellowship in 2010 and entering practice in North Carolina, I have had the great privilege of evaluating, caring for, and guiding-through-stroke-aftermath hundreds (perhaps thousands at this point) of young stroke survivors. When I reflect back on the trust that so many young adults whose lives have been forever changed by a disease they never expected to strike have placed in me, it is both humbling and invigorating, and I will forever be grateful for each and every one of these encounters, for I have learned something new from every unique experience.

I made the decision to leave my full-time job last year, and provided a six month notice indicating such in June 2018. Since making the decision to embark on a new career path (more on that in a bit), I have received numerous emails, Facebook messages, calls, and texts from friends who also know young stroke patients I have met – wanting to know why I left and where I went, if I went anywhere at all. I hope I can successfully offer an explanation here.

To start, I will share some of what my professional life looked like prior to my decision to change course. These words will also hopefully convey what the lives of many physicians are like. Our academic calendars in teaching hospitals run from July 1st through June 30th. During the academic year of July 2017 through June 2018, I was on call in some form 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 26 weeks. Put another way, every minute of my life for half of my life that year I was on call. Overlaying this, patients I had seen in clinic would call with questions, send electronic messages, request that paperwork be completed. Just about every night, after running nonstop all day long while on call, I would get to my “in basket” late at night. I lost count of the number of times I fell asleep sitting upright with my computer in my lap, only to be awakened at 2AM by another page.

During weeks when I was not on call, I evaluated patients in the clinic setting, taught students and residents (both activities that I loved at their cores), carried several administrative titles with responsibilities, attempted to catch up on weeks of email from on call weeks, attended meetings, and if there was time, tried to write. Then, in there somewhere, I also had four young children who craved my time and attention.

Please don’t misunderstand my tone – I am not complaining, but merely describing my existence behind the scenes. While I thrive on caring for patients with strokes, and I cannot imagine any other profession I would rather have, after the years of intense on-call hours consuming 50% of my life each year while also yearning to spend time with my children, trying to maintain relationships with those I love, and fueled by a desire for decent sleep again, I reached a point of recognizing that I needed more balance. For years I could not admit this to myself. After all, I had never had a stroke, so my fatigue could not possibly rival the suffering of my patients. And I had many colleagues in both my field and in other areas of expertise who lived similar existences (or worse – years ago, I had a colleague in a procedural specialty who was on call 100% of the time when he was in town, which was about 46 weeks a year).

Year after year, I kept going, until last year, the year of being on call for half of my waking and sleeping hours. Eighteen of those 26 weeks of that particular year were hospital on call weeks, which meant I was physically in the hospital caring for patients on both weekdays and weekends. Over the years I have missed or been noticeably late for countless rec league basketball games, sports practices, piano and violin lessons, and swim meets. My children used to groan when my pager went off at dinnertime or while I was reading bedtime stories with them, but I knew things had to change when the groans stopped with each pager alert and instead they remained quiet with dejected facial expressions. It was almost like the final stage of their grief – acceptance.

As I detailed in a previous post (if you are interested, click here), one of the wonderful experiences I gained during my time at Duke was becoming familiar with Duke’s telestroke network. Briefly, the idea behind a telestroke network is to place a neurologist at a stroke patient’s bedside in communities where neurologists would not otherwise be available. When I would receive a telestroke page, I would sign onto a computer, securely video conference with the patient in whom stroke was suspected, and partner with the emergency medicine or internal medicine physician at the hospital requesting help on which steps to take to properly and rapidly treat the patient. It has amazed me that so many hospitals across the United States who have never had access to neurological care for stroke patients can now have a neurologist at the bedside within minutes under this model. Patients in these areas are receiving IV t-PA (the “clot-busting” medicine) at much higher rates because of this access, and those who are eligible for thrombectomy (a procedure in which a large blood clot is removed from an artery) are being selected for transfer to hospitals where this service is available.

I have had many a patient encounter in the outpatient clinic setting that has led me to feel sadly remorseful as I ponder why a patient did not receive IV t-PA when it seems from the person’s story and medical chart that it should have been an option, but it was not administered in those first critical hours. Why didn’t an eligible patient receive IV t-PA? Why didn’t an eligible patient undergo thrombectomy when numerous clinical trials have shown how beneficial it can be to long term outcomes? Frequently it is a matter of lacking quick access to neurologists who are comfortable evaluating these patients and backing up emergency medicine providers in implementing these interventions.

As I pondered last spring how to achieve more personal balance while also continuing to treat stroke patients, I began to consider the reality that so many patients are disabled or not disabled based on what happens in those first critical hours, and that I could have a phenomenal impact if I focused my time on working with telestroke networks. I could evaluate hundreds, if not thousands, of patients each year, help emergency providers distinguish between stroke and conditions that mimic stroke, treat eligible stroke patients with IV t-PA, coordinate getting eligible patients to sites to undergo thrombectomy, and so much more.

As I investigated the possibility of performing telestroke work full-time, I found a number of hospital systems seeking vascular neurologists to provide telestroke care. Among them was Sentara, a healthcare system comprised of 12 hospitals and numerous outpatient clinics in Virginia and North Carolina. As soon as I spoke with the medical director of the telestroke program at Sentara, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I also became aware that my medical school alma mater, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) was seeking to hire more vascular neurologists for its telestroke network. I was already part of the Duke telestroke team, and months after my notice of resignation from my full-time position there, we worked out an agreement for me to continue to provide telestroke coverage.

In addition to having the opportunity to provide a lot of care to a lot of patients under this model, I also knew it would give me flexibility – the ability to work from home, to control my hours such that I could prioritize time with my family, and to limit the stretches during which I was on call so I could sleep regularly. So far, the journey has been beautiful. I have sincerely enjoyed telestroke work thus far, and feel that balance has finally been achieved.

When I find that I have free time now, I am using it to write. I had started writing a book in 2017 on cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, but my work load and rigorous on-call schedule had prevented me from completing it. I’m back on track with it, expecting to publish it by the end of 2019. The Stroke Blog is up and running again. Amanda Anderson (my co-author, former patient, and friend with whom I collaborated on Carotid and Vertebral Artery Dissection: A Guide For Survivors And Their Loved Onesand I are in the process of outlining another question and answer guide for stroke survivors. Many people have passions that drive them, and writing has always been one of mine. Without writing, I feel that a void develops in my life.

For those of you who were my patients, I wish to communicate the following: First, thank you again for your trust. Please know how much I learned from you, and how deeply I appreciate the encounters we had. I truly loved tracking down the sources of your strokes, working on action plans with you for how we were going to prevent further strokes, and determining how we were going to address symptoms from your stroke aftermath. Caring for stroke patients in a clinic or a hospital grew into my passion for advocacy for stroke survivors because of what you were willing to bravely share with me. Caring for stroke survivors is much more than just a job to me.

At this point, I am not in a new outpatient clinic or an environment to do outpatient work. However, I am very interested in starting an online telemedicine practice to provide this very service for young stroke survivors. I have seen what telemedicine can do in the format of telestroke networks, and can only imagine the possibilities with an online e-medicine practice. We think of medical practices as residing in a bricks-and-mortar building, where patients transport themselves or are transported by others to this building during traditional business hours, wait in a waiting room (sometimes for hours if the office is running behind schedule), and receive a limited amount of time with a specialist provider. I want to change that.

Imagine that you have an appointment with a specialist who is 200 miles away at a big hospital, and all you have to do to physically see and speak with that person is log on to a computer or bring up a phone app. If the physician is running behind, he or she texts you to say he or she is behind, and instead of sitting in a waiting room for minutes or hours, you go about your day at work or in your home. When it’s your turn, he or she texts you, you sign on, and the visit starts. No travel time, no parking hassles (huge deal for stroke patients), no hotel room or airplane flight or additional gas in the car. No taking the day off of work or having to find someone to watch the kids. Does this have potential? I think it does.

To summarize the answer to the question of…where did I go?

The answer is…I am still here, although my path has changed. And I am very much looking forward to what each day brings. You have all taught me that life is precious, time is a gift, and nothing is to be taken for granted. I have witnessed wonderful mothers and fathers who are younger than I am now with their lives abruptly and unexpectedly cut short by stroke. If my life were to suddenly end, my great hope is that my children will know how much I loved them, and will cherish the time we had together.

Despite how much we attempt to keep the risk of stroke for ourselves as low as possible, none of us are immune from having a stroke tomorrow.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone.

And that includes me.

Reflecting On Stroke Anniversaries

Usually I associate the familiar phrase “The days are long, but the years are short” with the raising of children. It’s astonishing how exhausting days are with the sleep-deprivation that accompanies caring for newborn babies, chasing toddlers, or correcting a sassy pre-teen, but then – BAM!! – they are grown. Where do the years go when the days can seem so long? And as difficult as raising young children can be, when looking back on the challenges, there is an almost surreal quality to it.

It occurred to me recently that my patients have expressed to me this same sentiment with the process of stroke recovery. The long days in the hospital, then the acute rehab process early on with exhausting therapy sessions, then outpatient therapy while trying to return to life as “normal” when a new normal has arisen, and the previous normal no longer exists…wow. These days can drag on and seem absolutely interminable.

But then, the one year anniversary after surviving a stroke eventually arrives, then the two year anniversary, and then – five years have passed. The stroke anniversary remains etched in minds and hearts, and carries its own special significance. When the anniversary passes each year, it can bring many emotions.

  • Fear – “Will it happen again?”
  • Grief – “I miss the person I used to be and the life I used to have.”
  • Discouragement – “My doctor said I will stop improving after a year – does this mean I won’t continue to get better?”
  • Encouragement – “Look how much progress I have made!”
  • Victory – “Five years later, I’m making it each day – stroke isn’t going to stop me.”

(That whole you-won’t-improve-after-a-year thing is ridiculous, by the way, particularly in younger patients. Every person is unique is his or her recovery, and I have seen young patients still showing improvement three years later.)

Having heard and witnessed so much devastation that arises from stroke, I began feeling confused over time as some patients began sharing gratitude for their strokes. Grateful? For a stroke? How could that be? And as I have listened, the reasons have been numerous:

  • “I never would have chosen to have a baby if I had not had a stroke – it forced me to re-examine what I wanted in life.”
  • “I appreciate the little things so much more now than I did before my stroke.”
  • “I met the love of my life at a stroke support group.”
  • “I was so stressed out at work before my stroke and was burning at both ends. The stroke forced me to slow down and re-focus.”
  • “Before my stroke my house had to be absolutely perfect. The other day I found my two year old son coloring on the living room floor, and I was so grateful for him that it didn’t bother me.” (I have to remember this one patient’s story on a weekly basis.)

Perhaps this is what I find so inspiring about stroke survivors – the resilience in these statements, the search for the silver linings, and the way they keep going after unexpected life-altering events.

The Stroke Blog has been relatively silent recently as I have attempted to find my own sense of balance. Writing has always been a passion, and unfortunately it took a back seat to many other competing obligations over the past year. In the new year, though, it has moved closer to the front, and for that I am immensely grateful. I will be updating you on many topics, and look forward to the ongoing journey.

Here’s to a new year!

Cerebellar Stroke: Five Things Healthcare Providers Should Know

When I started The Stroke Blog in 2014, I had a few ideas of what readers might be seeking. In fact, I kept a running list of topics that I thought patients would find informative. I am now humbled to admit that cerebellar stroke was not on that original list. I had diagnosed and treated hundreds of cerebellar strokes at that point, and had noticed that a number of these patients had complaints that extended well beyond balance and coordination difficulties, but I had not considered writing a blog post devoted entirely to cerebellar stroke. When I heard a segment on NPR in 2015 about a man who was born without a cerebellum, I thought: Okay, I haven’t blogged about cerebellar stroke yet. I’ll put it out there. The result was “Cerebellar stroke – it’s about more than coordination and balance.”

Over the months that ensued, the response was much more robust than I had anticipated. For the past year and a half, without question, this is the post that receives the most daily traffic. It is the post that has received the largest volume of comments from readers. For the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on why this is the case, and I have a few ideas.

First, cerebellar strokes are largely “invisible” in the aftermath they create, meaning they can leave a patient feeling miserable or limited (or both), but this may not be evident to those around them. Because of this, cerebellar stroke patients may be expected to perform at their pre-stroke levels when this is either challenging or impossible for them. Next, many of them are told by healthcare providers when they experience word-finding difficulty, emotional problems, difficulties with concentration, or other symptoms not strictly related to coordination and balance that these parts of their “new normal” do not stem from cerebellar injury (but they actually can). Additionally, cerebellar strokes can be very difficult to diagnose, and are often misdiagnosed initially as benign paroxysmal peripheral vertigo (BPPV), Meniere’s disease, or migraine.

In an effort to keep the dialogue about cerebellar stroke going, I believe that if we as healthcare providers who are likely to encounter patients with this diagnosis can adhere to the following items, care will be substantially enhanced:

  1. Order the appropriate radiological imaging study. A head CT scan’s sensitivity in revealing evidence of an ischemic process (lack of oxygen-rich blood flow) in the cerebellum is extremely low during the first 24 hours. A brain MRI is a much more sensitive radiological study for identifying early stroke, but even this study isn’t 100% sensitive. Additionally, if a stroke has not occurred yet, but blood flow to the cerebellum is severely restricted because of narrowing in one of the arteries upon which it depends, a CT-angiogram or MR-angiogram would be the appropriate noninvasive radiological study to obtain, because a regular brain MRI is unlikely to declare the existence of the underlying problem.
  2. You don’t know if you don’t look. Many a patient with cerebellar stroke has initially been thought to have vertigo of a benign etiology based solely on clinical suspicion. Patients with cerebellar strokes can look exactly like patients with benign forms of vertigo. Medical students are taught to perform the Dix-Hallpike maneuver (the patient sits upright and then is abruptly reclined with his or her head hanging off of the back of the bed with the head turned and eyes staring far to the side – for more information click here), and that with this technique they can distinguish between vertigo originating from the inner ear and “central” vertigo (such as from a cerebellar injury). The truth is, if a cerebellar stroke patient is abruptly tilted backwards, vertigo, nausea, and nystagmus (jittery eye movements) can arise, just as they can if there is a problem in the inner ear. A normal Dix-Hallpike maneuver is not helpful in making a diagnosis, and a “positive” one can still be either a cerebellar stroke or more benign vertigo.
  3. Cerebellar strokes can quickly become life-threatening. The cerebellum sits in a very tight spot just below the back of the brain in an area referred to as the posterior fossa. Very large cerebellar strokes may not seem that severe clinically, but when the cerebellum starts swelling, brainstem compression and death can occur quickly. However, correctly diagnosing a cerebellar stroke and recognizing signs of neurological worsening saves lives. A suboccipital craniectomy is a surgical procedure in which a portion of the skull overlaying the cerebellum is removed, allowing the cerebellum room to swell without putting as much pressure on adjacent brainstem structures. Suboccipital craniectomies are recommended by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association when patients with cerebellar stroke show signs of neurological deterioration and there is evidence of cerebellar swelling.
  4. The aftermath of cerebellar stroke is not limited to balance and coordination difficulties in some patients. I elaborated on this statement in the earlier referenced post, which can be found by clicking here.
  5. Cerebellar stroke recovery is all over the map. Some patients do fabulously well in recovering from cerebellar strokes – it’s all like a bad dream, and they know it happened, but they don’t experience noticeable aftermath from it. Others may have lingering, refractory vertigo. Some have severe migraines, or language difficulties, or swallowing problems. There is no one-size-fits-all formula to cerebellar stroke, so it’s important to keep an open mind when these patients approach us for help.

New book for patients with carotid and vertebral artery dissection is now available

One of the most meaningful parts of my neurology residency training was learning how to treat patients with carotid and vertebral artery dissections. Not only was I fascinated with the concept that a young person could sneeze or cough and severely injure an important artery as a result of such a benign action, but I was surprised by how frequently we identified dissections, yet they were referred to as “rare.” They did not seem rare to me, but I figured I was biased, given the specialty I had chosen to pursue.

Following my vascular neurology fellowship completion, I then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and continued to frequently make this diagnosis in young, healthy individuals. I found that many of them were presenting to the emergency departments in the area with headaches and/or neck pain, and were diagnosed as having migraines or muscular spasms until I would recommend imaging of the arteries in the neck before sending them home. When imaging studies would reveal dissection of a carotid or vertebral artery, there was usually relief from both patients and healthcare providers in identifying a treatable cause for symptoms, and in knowing that we could lower the risk of stroke from that point with the appropriate management. As I saw more dissection patients in the outpatient clinic setting, I learned that many of them continued to suffer with pain, anxiety, migraines, insomnia, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating, to name a few concerns. I heard these concerns voiced from dissection patients who had suffered strokes, and from those who had no evidence of stroke on MRI. I also observed that even patients whose follow up imaging indicated that their arteries were now “healed” they still had lingering symptoms.

Over time, I found that I was having the same conversations and answering the same questions repeatedly when talking to dissection patients and their loved ones. By 2013, I thought: “Someone should compile the questions these patients have in book form and attempt to answer them.” There was no such book available, and it seemed very much worth writing, if the right person would make the time for it.

On January 1, 2016, about six months after I had joined the faculty at Duke University, Amanda Anderson, a speech-language pathologist in Charlotte, a friend, and herself one of my former carotid artery dissection patients, contacted me, telling me she wanted to work on a “project” to distract her from the daily unrelenting pain that had come to define her dissection aftermath. She had already published a workbook series for patients with language impairment (aphasia), and I knew she would be a great collaborator. I decided that since the “right person” had not made time to write the book for patients that I thought needed to be written, then I would have to be that person.

We decided early into the planning process to write much of the book in a question-and-answer format, and that we would make it as comprehensive as possible, but provide explanations that were easy to understand. We also wanted the book to illustrate that carotid and vertebral artery dissection patients are real people with real lives, and found plenty of brave patients from around the country (and even one outside of the US) who were willing to share their stories. We wanted many of the personal stories to be written by the patients themselves in order to provide their perspectives in their own voices.

This morning, after a year and a half of writing and revising, Carotid and Vertebral Artery Dissection: A Guide for Patients and Their Loved Ones was published!

It has been such a moving, unforgettable journey, and a regular reminder of why I love this patient group so much. Amanda’s relentless enthusiasm and her compassion for her fellow dissection survivors has sustained me during busy times when it was challenging to find time to write.

I sincerely hope that if you or a loved one has experienced a carotid or vertebral artery dissection, this book provides answers to your questions, and perhaps just as important, validation of your experiences.

Apathy around National Stroke Awareness Month is real

I have spent the past week debating whether to post publicly about an email I received from The State (South Carolina’s most widely distributed daily newspaper). Ultimately, I concluded that it was important to do so. Stroke patients need a voice, and while The Stroke Blog was started to empower the younger stroke population through sharing information pertaining to their circumstances, empowerment leads to advocacy.

Following my post on May 18, 2017, Call To Action: Americans Fear Terrorism More Than What Is Likely To Kill Them, I decided to submit the text to The State in hopes of reaching a broad audience in a place that lies in the heart of the “Stroke Belt.” Over half of hospital admissions for stroke in South Carolina involve patients under the age of 65. It seemed an appropriate medium for providing education about stroke during National Stroke Awareness Month.

The email response I received from one of the editors, frankly, shocked me: “THanks [sic] but we’ll have to pass. We don’t generally run columns on all these made-up months, weeks and days…”

“Made-up months”?

I had difficulty understanding what prompted this. Stroke has created a public health crisis, has disabled millions of Americans, and remains the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S, killing over 130,000 people annually in our country. In addition to these alarming numbers, according to the National Stroke Association, as many as 80% of strokes can be prevented. Plus, we have effective treatments within the first few hours of when a stroke starts! Therefore, stroke seemed like the perfect condition upon which to build more awareness. It’s devastating, but we have the power to change that on a large scale, both through preventative efforts and by rapidly treating strokes when they occur.

After deliberating, I replied to this particular editor, and explained that Stroke Awareness Month was being recognized by the mainstream media and hospitals across the country. This person’s quick response was that all months/days devoted to causes should be viewed the same way, whether they were about heart attacks, diabetes, “or chocolate or bicycling or … anything.”

At that point, I called a friend who has worked with hundreds of stroke patients professionally, and asked her what I was missing. I understood that there were numerous “_____ Awareness Month” recognitions, but it made perfect sense to me that the importance of calling 911, the recognition that prompt medical attention can save a person from lifelong disability, the understanding that stroke is not just a disease of the elderly, that education about the importance of smoking cessation was critical, that the knowledge that patients with high blood pressure should comply with taking their medications would all be important points for coverage in the media. And raising awareness around issues that can lessen the incidence of a disease that kills so many people annually still seemed like a good thing to me. As much as I love chocolate (and I do – seriously), lumping awareness around stroke and awareness around chocolate into the same statement rubbed me the wrong way.

In talking with my friend, she reminded me that Stroke Awareness Month was, indeed, “made up” – by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 when he signed a proclamation declaring every May as “Stroke Awareness Month.” I then began reading articles, editorials, and reflections about Stroke Awareness Month, and contemplated how important this time is to so many people affected by stroke. One of my favorites was a piece by Kirk Douglas from 2014 on The Huffington Post (click to read it).

I truly believe that everyone has the right to his or her opinions, and the right to express these opinions with language. The State can make its own choices about the importance or lack of importance of Stroke Awareness Month, and I can make mine. I believe we do need more awareness around stroke, because I want to be treating more patients with t-PA and mechanical thrombectomy, but I can’t if they don’t call 911 or get to an emergency department quickly after a stroke starts. If they lie down on the couch to take a nap, there is a good likelihood that it will be too late to treat them once they show up at a hospital. That decision – whether to call 911 or lie down – often alters the course of a person’s life, determines whether that person will ever return to work again, will be able to care for himself or require assistance from others for decades to come.

What ultimately shifts people in the 911 direction over the lying down direction?

Awareness.

Call To Action: Americans Fear Terrorism More Than What Is Likely To Kill Them

The 2016 Chapman University Survey of American Fears gave me pause for reflection. Leading the list of what strikes fear into the more than 1,500 Americans surveyed was “corrupt government officials” (60.6% of respondents), followed by terrorist attacks (41%). Much farther down the list, only 20.3% reported “becoming seriously ill” as a cause for concern.  

As a physician who spends her days caring for patients with strokes, or “brain attacks,” I wondered how many strokes we could avoid entirely if people feared brain attacks as much as they fear terrorist attacks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 795,000 strokes occur in the United States each year. An individual’s lifetime odds of dying from a stroke are approximately 1 in 31, and stroke remains the fifth overall leading cause of death in our country. What are the lifetime odds of dying at the hands of a foreign born terrorist? According to the National Safety Council, only around 1 in 45,808.

A stroke is a permanent brain injury, resulting either from a blockage preventing blood from reaching part of the brain (ischemic stroke), or from bleeding occurring in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). While rehabilitation can assist with improving a stroke survivor’s ability to function, the injury to the brain is not reversible. Skin cells may regenerate within a wound, but cells in the brain do not. Common stroke symptoms include, but are not limited to, weakness on one side of the body, numbness on one side, sudden visual loss, slurred speech, drooping on one side of the face, and/or difficulty producing coherent words/sentences.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month, a time during which amplified efforts take place to raise public recognition of the disabling and fatal impact that stroke brings. The good news is that most strokes are preventable, but this requires effort. Just because a patient feels well does not mean that high blood pressure should be ignored. Cigarette smoking is harmful to the brain and its blood supply, but quitting is tough and requires resolve. Diabetic patients with high blood sugar readings should take these seriously and work with their healthcare providers to bring these under control. High cholesterol measurements also warrant discussion between patients and providers.

There are three major educational points I wish to make during National Stroke Awareness Month, in hopes that we can join together to prevent strokes and the horrible aftermath they produce.

1.            Atrial fibrillation is a type of irregular heart rhythm that can dramatically increase the risk for stroke. There are now a number of medications that can substantially lower the risk of stroke in these patients. If you have atrial fibrillation, it is critical that you discuss with your healthcare provider whether he or she recommends starting one of these medications.

2.            Obstructive sleep apnea is another condition that places patients at higher risk for stroke, as well as many other disease processes that can also make a stroke more likely to occur. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, please work with your healthcare provider to find an effective way to control it. Your brain will appreciate it.

3.            Stroke is not just a disease of the elderly. I frequently see patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s presenting to the hospital with strokes. As frightening as it may seem, stroke also strikes during childhood. Tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) is a medication that can help to dissolve blood clots when a stroke begins. Multiple studies have demonstrated that treatment with t-PA increases a patient’s chances of living independently three months after a stroke compared with those who do not receive t-PA. However, t-PA is only beneficial within the first 3 to 4.5 hours after a stroke begins, and every minute that passes decreases a patient’s chance of reaching that independent outcome. Regardless of age, when stroke symptoms start, the right call to make is 911. A person is never too young to have a stroke.

I remain much more fearful of having a stroke than I do of losing my life in a terrorist attack. Yes, national security is an important issue; however, as we battle threats that are much more likely to kill and disable Americans than terrorist attacks, let us place our fears where fear is warranted, and channel this energy into action.

Bill Paxton: Stroke Following Heart Surgery

Bill Paxton was one of those versatile actors who had always just been around for us. When his unexpected death at 61 was recently announced, I heard reactions such as: “Oh, I loved him in True Lies” and “He was in Apollo 13, right?” My immediate thoughts turned to Titanic (yes, I’m a girl – I saw it in the theater three times), and to the quirky explorer played by Paxton, attempting to recover the remains of the sunken vessel while understanding the stories of those who had perished. He has existed in my memory as a youthful individual, perhaps because he is frozen in time in that role for me. Film does that. It prevents us from believing that aging occurs, and yet it still does behind the scenes.

Bill Paxton, exploring the Titanic in the 1997 film

According to mainstream media sources, Paxton had rheumatic heart disease, and underwent surgical replacement of one of his heart valves on February 14, 2017. First lesson in this story: the reason for treating strep infections of the throat (strep pharyngitis) with antibiotics is not necessarily only to prevent the infection from worsening, but more so to eradicate the infection so that a more serious problem involving the immune system does not develop later. Following strep infections, the immune system can mount an inflammatory response, which can then result in an immune attack on the valves of the heart. The inflammatory state is known as rheumatic fever, and the valve injury is known as rheumatic heart disease. Eventually, many patients end up having surgery to replace defective heart valves years after their initial encounter with rheumatic heart disease.

Following his heart surgery, Paxton had a stroke. In one study published in December 2016, after data from 21,821 patients having undergone mitral valve surgery was analyzed, it was found that 3.89% of them experienced strokes soon after the procedure. The risk seems to be slightly lower in those undergoing aortic valve replacement. The truth is, however, that general anesthesia alone carries a risk of stroke, even when the heart is not the target for surgery. Blood pressure decreases under anesthesia, which can result in difficulties getting blood flow through tight areas where plaque build up may be present. Short-lived irregular heart rhythms that can generate blood clots, such as atrial fibrillation, are not uncommon during or following surgery. Procedures involving catheters (wires inserted into blood vessels) can cause stroke if plaque is “knocked loose” by the wire, or if clot forms at the tip of the wire.

Paxton’s death brings further awareness that, while we attempt to keep procedural risks as low as possible, surgery does carry the risk of stroke. The desire is for the potential benefit of surgery to outweigh the risks involved, or else the surgery should not take place. Risk assessment is a game of odds, and hoping that patients will land on the more favorable side of the equation.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Young adults with acute ischemic stroke are more likely to receive IV t-PA than their older counterparts, and have lower rates of bleeding

I am finally able to share the results of the largest study to date evaluating treatment of young adults in the first hours after the onset of ischemic stroke! First, though, I would like to provide some background for you.

When I left practice in the community hospital setting in order to start at Duke University in June 2015, it was in part to have the resources to study stroke management in younger adults. I had questions. Lots of question.

Questions like:

  • Are young adults receiving IV t-PA (the “clot-busting” drug for early ischemic stroke) with the same frequency as their older counterparts, or are they less likely to receive it because they are misdiagnosed?
  • Stroke patients who are presented with the option of receiving IV t-PA early after a stroke are often told there is a 6% risk of bleeding from the drug, but is this accurate for younger adults? Or is the bleeding risk lower in younger, healthier individuals having strokes?
  • Are there delays in treating younger adults because of a reluctance to treat, or delays in recognition that strokes are occurring?

In September 2015, I submitted a research proposal to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association as part of an application for the “Young Investigator Award,” which would allow access to the largest stroke database in the United States, as well as funding for statistical analysis. I learned in January 2016 that the AHA/ASA agreed that these were questions worth answering, because the proposal was selected for the award. Over the course of the spring and summer of 2016 my colleagues and I worked on this project and getting the abstract ready for submission to the International Stroke Conference, and yesterday, the results were finally presented!

Poster summarizing some of the results from the study described in the blog post. Details will be published in a forthcoming journal article.

Overall, data on the strokes sustained by over 30,000 patients between the ages of 18 and 40 was analyzed, and compared with stroke data on 1.2 million strokes in patients over age 40. 12.5% of the younger patients received IV t-PA, versus 8.8% of patients over 40. Of patients who arrived at the hospital within 3.5 hours (more likely to be eligible for IV t-PA because they made it to the hospital within the time window to receive the drug), 68.7% of younger patients received t-PA, versus 63.3% of patients over 40.

The part of the study that excited me the most was the low rate of bleeding complications in the younger adult stroke patients – only 1.7% had symptomatic bleeding in the brain within 36 hours of t-PA, versus 4.5% of those over 40. Regarding severe bleeding elsewhere in the body, only 0.3% of younger patients experienced this problem, compared with 1.0% of those 40 and older. The reason this excites me is because we as neurologists finally know what the real bleeding complication rate is in the young adult population from t-PA, and instead of giving these young adults numbers that were generated from the more typical, older stroke population, we can say with good data to back us: “Your risk of bleeding from this drug is only 2%, and the likelihood of benefit far outweighs the potential risk.” Young people in the midst of a stroke deserve accurate data to consider when making the decision about whether to accept t-PA as a treatment.

We found significant delays both in getting the head CT scan done after arrival and in starting t-PA in the younger stroke patients. Adults over 40 who receive t-PA are more likely to receive it less than 60 minutes after arrival to the hospital, and are more likely to have their head CT scan done less than 25 minutes after arrival.

There is a lot of work to do in treating all stroke patients more rapidly, and we have to find ways to treat more patients overall when they present to the hospital in the midst of stroke. This is a step forward in understanding how younger adults with stroke are treated, and in comprehending the real complication rate, as opposed to giving them information that applies to the older population.

 

(Reference: Dodds JA, Xiao Y, Sheng S, Fonarow GC, Matsouaka R, Bhatti DL, Peterson E, Schwamm LH, Smith EE. Intravenous Recombinant Tissue-Type Plasminogen Activator Use in Young Adults with Acute Ischemic Stroke. AHA/ASA International Stroke Conference, Houston, TX – 23 February 2017.)

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds: Can Stress Cause Stroke?

The year 2016 ended with hemorrhagic stroke in the mainstream news around the world. Most of you have already heard the story of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds at this point – a daughter’s unexpected death followed by the surprise of her mother’s passing within a day.

Patients frequently ask me if stress can cause stroke, and many younger adults report that at the time they sustained their strokes, they were under a great deal of either professional or personal (or both) stress. When I was training to become a physician, I asked this question, and was told that there was no definitive evidence linking stress to stroke. Over the years, though, I question this for a number of reasons.

First of all, studying stress is more challenging than studying diabetes or high cholesterol, where there are reliable lab values that can be tracked. Some studies follow levels of cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands, but cortisol levels do not necessarily reflect the degree of stress that patients subjectively report experiencing. Also, an individual may report severe levels of stress on a questionnaire in response to what may seem to be a relatively benign situation, while another could claim to have “mild” stress during a period of great hardship. Patients can underreport their levels of stress too.

Okay, so if we can’t easily study stress, what does that mean in terms of whether it is associated with stroke risk? It is probably worth deciphering the downstream effects of stress that can be measured to answer this question.

I tell patients that stress can send blood pressure surging, and high blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke. With the release of cortisol during stressful periods, this can result in an increase in blood sugar levels (glucose), and if prolonged could theoretically lead to the development of insulin resistance and/or diabetes. Stress causes sleep disruption, and insomnia can place patients at risk for health complications. So does stress cause stroke? I would say that if an ongoing level of stress that continuously leads to stroke risk factors is present, then perhaps it can.

Back to Debbie Reynolds now. There is stress, and then there is distress. To the best of my knowledge, she was not living with chronic stress, but endured a sudden, unexpected, severe form of emotional distress with the news of her daughter’s unanticipated death. I was not surprised when her death certificate revealed her cause of death as “intracerebral hemorrhage” (bleeding within the brain). I have met patients who have collapsed into unconsciousness with these hemorrhages when receiving intensely upsetting news, such as the unexpected death of a loved one, or notification of eviction from their homes. I suspect there is a sudden increase in catecholamine levels (stress hormones released as part of our fight-or-flight responses), causing a spike in blood pressure, and the rupture of a small artery in the brain under such pressure. It is difficult to study hormonally what is occurring during a time of such intense emotional distress just prior to an intracerebral hemorrhage though.