May is National Stroke Awareness Month. Did you know that a stroke is a “brain attack” and occurs when one of the blood vessels that circulate blood to the brain is blocked or bursts? The statistics are a wake-up call to do better.
• Nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. experience a stroke each year.
• There are 130,000 stroke deaths each year — that’s one of every 20 deaths.
• Every four minutes someone dies from a stroke.
• Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. (the third cause of death in women).
• A stroke happens every 40 seconds, at any age, any gender, and anytime.
• African-Americans are twice as likely as Caucasians to have a first-time stroke.
Know your stroke risks
Typically foods offered at happy hour, Tuesday specials, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and movie theaters are bad for your health. If you don’t watch it, you can easily eat a daily allowance of salt, sugar and fat in one meal. Unhealthy eating habits, little or no exercise, alcohol consumption and smoking are all risk factors for strokes.
Know stroke signs and symptoms
If you experience numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; change in your vision; difficulty walking; feel dizzy or a loss of balance; or get a severe headache with no obvious cause chances are you are having a stroke.
At 55, Sheryl Sarpy was socially active and successful. On June 25, 2015, her life took an unexpected turn and she went from the life of the party to being a stroke survivor.
There were no warning signs other than a bad headache and suddenly losing the ability to speak while she was advising a client on an operational procedure.
Internally, she knew there was something wrong but she didn’t panic. She was at a client’s site so she ended the session, stepped out of the room and notified a colleague that she was going to the nearest urgent care. Sarpy was lucky. The key to surviving a stroke is to act fast, call 911 and not risk driving yourself to seek medical treatment.
Upon arrival at urgent care, she was examined and her vitals were checked. Surprisingly, a stroke was not the physician’s diagnosis.
Her blood pressure was high and she was given something to bring it back to normal. The doctor advised her go to an emergency room at a hospital, but to call a friend to take her. Her colleague picked her up in 15 minutes to take her to the ER.
The ER team diagnosed Sarpy with an ischemic stroke (the most common stroke ) that was followed by a series of smaller strokes. The cause of her stroke was attributed to high blood pressure (1½ times greater risk for a stroke); diabetes (four times likely to have a stroke); and high cholesterol (the cause of buildup of fatty deposits and other cells in artery walls). She had a 100 percent blockage of the carotid artery on the right side of her neck.
Sarpy was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for four days, transferred to an Orange County hospital for two weeks and then sent to a rehabilitation center for about two months. Sarpy finally returned to home life on Aug. 20.
Surviving a stroke is life-changing. She had to give up her independence and move in with her brother because she could no longer care for herself — financially or physically.
The stroke affected her left side: the left side of her face drooped, she lost the use of her hand and arm, had weakness in her leg and had to use a cane and a brace. Also, her memory was affected, it was hard to concentrate and focus, she couldn’t read a book, drive or perform tasks that we easily take for granted.
The financial impact for care
Sarpy shared that there were a number of factors that had some impact on her present state of health. It’s possible her stroke could have been prevented with the proper diabetes medication.
Her physician admitted that the medication that would have been better to treat her diabetes was out of her price range. Instead, the physician prescribed an inferior medication, which did not manage her diabetes successfully.
When Sarpy checked in at the urgent care, she was told that they did not accept the insurance she carried and if she wanted to be examined, she had to pay first. Luckily, she had a credit card or her care would have been delayed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that stroke patients who are admitted to the ER within three hours of their first symptoms are usually healthier three months after a stroke than people who receive delayed care.
Not long after Sarpy was admitted, her insurance stopped paying her medical bills. Fortunately, Medi-Cal stepped in to take care of the balance of the bills.
Soon after, she was discharged with the recommendation to get assistance at home. She was told that a physical therapist would be assigned but after a month, no one showed up. After several phone calls, she was told the therapist would not go to her home, but she could make her own arrangements to go to the therapist at least twice a week.
Eventually, social services approved a caregiver for 50 hours a month.
“It’s always good to have an advocate to assist with medical billing, medication and care,” Sarpy said. “Support of family and friends is very important.”
Ways to reduce stroke risk
Eating is one of biggest culprits leading to strokes. Exercise also is part of the process for stroke prevention.
“Watch your diet. I didn’t eat a balanced diet,” Sarpy admitted. “My daily food intake consisted of one or more of unhealthy choices for breakfast, lunch, happy hour or dinner.”
Her typical meals, probably not too different than most of us, included:
• Morning: Cinnamon rolls, muffins, daily specialty caffeinated coffee with flavored creamers, smoothies that were high in sugar, croissant breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, French toast, hash browns, cheese grits, and biscuits with butter.
• Lunch: Fried chicken weekly, sandwiches, French fries, corn chips, cookies, ice cream, buffets, fried calamari, fried shrimp, orange chicken, fried rice, pizza, double burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, lemonade, soda pop once a week, ketchup and barbeque sauce, milk shakes and hot dogs.
• Happy hours: Chips and salsa, margaritas, fried wings, martinis, tacos, cheese enchiladas, rice and refried beans with cheese.
• Dinner: Loaded baked potato, pork ribs, macaroni and cheese, fried pork chops, smothered chicken, cheese filled ravioli, cream sauce and fettuccini, bread and butter, cheese and meat lasagna, and Italian sausage with pasta.
• Sweets: Candy, popcorn with butter, nachos, layered cakes with frosting, cupcakes, ice cream, chocolate bars,
The road to recovery is a slow process. Sarpy learned to adjust her diet — less sugar, salt, bread, and snacking. Nearly a year has passed since her diagnosis: she has improved, is more cognitive, her speech is better, she is able to drive short distances but still uses a crane without the leg brace.
The only expectation that doctors gave her is that her hand should be back to normal by June.
Know FAST to recognize a stroke and to save lives: Face – Is it drooping? Arms – When both arms are raised, does one arm drift downward? Speech – Is it slurred, hard to understand or nothing comes out? Time – Call 911 immediately for medical help. Strokes are preventable and treatable.
Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for her column in The Wave.