Knowing the signs: Why every second counts during a stroke

Ray Schaefer's wife, a Sanford Health nurse, recognized his symptoms right away

By: Jenny Rackl .

Sanford Health RN May Schaefer recognized her husband's symptoms right away
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The outcome of a stroke depends largely on how quickly a person receives medical treatment after the stroke begins. So where a person is when it happens to them — and who they’re with — can affect their survival.

Because of this, Ray Schaefer was lucky on the morning of Feb. 21 when his wife, May, didn’t go into work at the usual time.

A nurse at Sanford Health, May typically works a shift beginning at 6:30 a.m., but on this particular day she wasn’t scheduled until two hours later.

“I was making my morning tea in the kitchen and I heard a noise, so I went into the bathroom to check on Ray and found him face down on the bathroom floor,” May said. “I tucked his right arm and right leg underneath him, rolled him over, and I knew right away he was having a stroke.”

Critical moments, critical stroke care

As a nurse with 36 years of experience in critical care, May noticed several symptoms as classic indicators of a stroke. Ray was experiencing total paralysis on his right side, accompanied by facial drooping, and he was unable to talk.

“I tried to pull my hand onto the edge of the countertop to get up, and nothing would work,” Ray recalled. “My mind was talking, but my voice was not coming out.”

May quickly dialed 911 – knowing that every second counted in stroke care. It was 7:15 a.m.

By the time an ambulance got him to the emergency room at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, Ray was unresponsive. His care team, led by Divyajot Sandhu, MD, began treatment immediately.

Once a CAT scan helped them locate a blood clot in his left middle cerebral artery, Ray was given tPA, a clot-buster drug used to break up a blockage and restore proper blood flow to the brain.

“Think of a stroke as a blood flow problem,” Dr. Sandhu explained. “A clot, which may be formed anywhere in the body, keeps traveling in blood vessels that supply the brain until it can travel no more. Once it gets stuck inside a blood vessel, it starves that part of the brain of oxygen.”

The danger is that the sensitive brain cells being deprived of oxygen can start to have permanent damage.

“Every extra minute that a blood vessel is left blocked, two million more neurons are permanently damaged. That’s a massive number — and that’s the gist of why time matters during a stroke,” Dr. Sandhu said.

Full recovery

As the only certified interventional neurologist in the region, Dr. Sandhu was able to retrieve the blood clot out of Ray’s artery during a procedure called a thrombectomy. By that night, Ray was off life support and waking up. Today he is doing great and has no residual effects from the stroke. May contributes his full recovery to the timeliness of his treatment.

“That’s really the key to his progress,” she says. “Ray was in the hospital within the hour of his symptoms starting. Within three hours, everything was done, and he was up in the intensive care unit. That’s what changed his life — and our life.”

Her quick thinking that morning left both May and her husband thankful she knew the signs of stroke and acted quickly.

“If you think that you have something going on, or if you are with someone and they are confused, they talk different or they’re unable to walk, get in and get checked,” May says. “They have a small window of opportunity where they can help people, so come in as fast as you can.”

Sanford Health has the only interventional stroke program in the region. To learn more about stroke care at Sanford Health, visit sanfordhealth.org.

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