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Walking his dogs through Dublin Park is a daily morning routine for Norman Heimer. During a typical morning walk in March 2015, he felt a tingling in his left arm, but it went away and he didn’t think any more about it.
A bit later the leash dropped from his hand and as he bent to pick it up, Heimer stumbled into a snow bank.
“A gentleman who was walking by stopped to ask if I was alright,” Heimer said. “I told him I was fine, and he said ‘no, I don’t think you are,’ and immediately called 9-1-1.”
Emergency Response Services was there within five minutes and Heimer was at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services about five minutes after that, while a lady who was also walking through the park watched his dogs.
Penrose-St. Francis Health Services provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network. Every stroke is an emergency and every minute counts. Because a stroke can damage brain tissue, calling 9-1-1 as soon as possible is imperative.
“I’m very fortunate that people who lived in the neighborhood, that did not know me, were responsible for getting me to the hospital for treatment so quickly,” Heimer said.
A stroke team was waiting when he arrived at Penrose Hospital and they quickly discovered a blood clot in Heimer‘s central cerebral artery.
“They gave me two choices; either insert a catheter up through my leg, or inject me with T-PA, which they said, will either fix you or you could die,” he said. “I told them ‘T-PA sounds like a good option to me, let’s do that.’”
T-PA, or Tissue Plasminogen Activator, is an enzyme found naturally in the body that dissolves clots. Studies show that patients who receive T-PA within 3 hours of onset of stroke symptoms were 33 percent more likely to recover from their stroke with little or no disability after a few months.
“They kept me in CCU overnight to keep an eye on me and a CT scan showed the clot was breaking up,” Heimer said. “After one more night in a regular hospital room, the on-call resident told me to count backwards from 100 by 7’s. I got to about 50-something and he said I was fine and discharged me.”
Within a week of suffering a stroke, Heimer says he was back to doing normal, everyday things.
“I heard that 97 percent of folks who have that stroke end up in a wheelchair and assisted living,” he said.
A short time later, Heimer and his wife were visiting their son in North Carolina, who is a physician.
“As we were walking on the beach my son noticed I didn’t have any problems in the sand and he agreed I was probably fine.”
After a patient has suffered a stroke, a major concern for doctors is when to let them start driving again. Stroke survivors want to get back to driving, and returning to independence after a stroke is important — but safety is more so.
“The driving rehabilitation program at Penrose is excellent,” stroke survivor Mackie Johnson said. “They took time with me, and drove around with me, and made sure my eyes were able to focus on the right things.”
As a result of experiencing a cerebellar stroke, a stroke in the lower part of the brain at the brain stem, at age 64, Johnson’s body movement, eye movement, balance, and fine motor skills were significantly impacted and he was consequently unable to drive for some time.
“For nearly the whole first year after my stroke I couldn’t do anything the way I wanted to do it,” he said. “Thanks to rehabilitation, I’m a lot better now, but some things are still difficult. Like playing the guitar; I get stuck on the strumming patterns.”
Johnson was referred to Penrose-St. Francis’ Fitness to Drive outpatient rehabilitation program to help him regain his driving freedom.
Fitness to Drive helps stroke and other patients develop or improve their current driving capacities. Balancing freedom and independence with safety, occupational therapists, who are driving rehabilitation specialists, provide clinical evaluation, behind the wheel evaluation, adaptive equipment prescription and training in skills that are essential to driving.
Once the patient has passed a comprehensive driving evaluation, which assesses vision, cognition and motor control, a written report is sent to the referring physician, who can then determine a patient’s capacity to resume driving.
“For anyone recovering from a stroke, having this support helps a lot,” Johnson said. “It makes all the difference.”
Each stroke patient is different, but returning them to their peak level of function and independence is the focus of the rehabilitation program at Penrose-St. Francis.
Penrose-St. Francis Health Services provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
“Stroke patients need to know, having a stroke is not the end of hope,” Johnson said. “Somethings might take a little longer to do, sometimes you get tired and you need to rest. After you rested a little, go back and try again. It’s important to stay positive.”
“Thank God for the rehabilitation program at Penrose-St. Francis,” stroke survivor Keith Guibert said. “I am walking and getting around pretty good, and I’m getting ready to do my driver’s evaluation because of the program.”
After suffering a bleeding, or hemorrhagic stroke, on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, Guibert was a patient on the 8th floor at Penrose Hospital for two months. Since being discharged, he has been actively partaking in the outpatient rehabilitation program through Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.
“I was in the garage getting something out of the freezer for dinner, and my other half wasn’t home,” Guibert said. “I laid on the floor for 2 1/2 hours in the 36-degree garage. Although the cold turned out to be a good thing because it slowed everything down.”
Although hemorrhagic strokes are less common, only 15 percent of all strokes are hemorrhagic, they are responsible for nearly 40 percent of all stroke deaths. Caused by either a brain aneurysm burst or a weakened blood vessel leak, hemorrhagic strokes cause blood to spill into or around the brain creating swelling and pressure, damaging cells and tissue.
“We still don’t know the reason for my stroke,” he said. “I guess my creator just decided it was time to slow me down.” Guibert had no risk factors for stroke and the neurosurgeon scans and angiogram did not reveal the cause.
“When you’re recovering from a stroke, any information and support you get to help you live life better is a great thing,” Guibert said.
A multi-disciplinary team at Penrose-St. Francis helps stroke patients reach their individual goals with a full range of therapy services complemented by specialized programs to enable patient to return to their best possible level of function and independence.
“Last year I participated in the Stroll For Stroke 5K Fun Run and Walk in a wheelchair,” Guibert said. “This year I will do it again, but this year I’ll be walking.”
As one of the leading causes of long-term adult disability, workable solutions for stroke survivors and their families are a critical tool in the recovery and rehabilitation process. While rehabilitation following a stroke starts in the hospital as soon as a patient is stable, the long-term goal is to improve function so that the survivor can once again be as independent as possible.
“The outpatient program at Penrose is a multi-disciplinary program that works closely with the inpatient program,” Kristi Ecklund MPT, CBIS, Out-patient Rehabilitation Manager at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, said. “In addition to physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and neuropsychology, we provide a number of specialty programs as well such as vision therapy, fitness to drive, and more.”
Sometimes, the effects of a stroke may require patients to change, relearn or redefine daily living, and rehabilitation is one of the most important phases for returning patients to independent living.
“We have some very cutting-edge, state-of-the-art equipment to support patients’ rehabilitation,” Ecklund said. “For instance, an anti-gravity treadmill that enhances balance and strength; a harness system that helps control weight bearing, posture, and balance over a treadmill or the ground; electrical stimulation to invigorate muscles in a hemiparetic arm or leg. And we can provide objective data from this technology that shows the patient they are improving and making progress.”
While rehabilitation can’t reverse the effects of a stroke, it is necessary to help build strength and endurance, capability and confidence, and return patients to their optimum level of function and independence.
“Which area of the brain was affected by the stroke determines the type and extent of therapy needed,” Ecklund said. “If the right side of the brain was affected, the patient may suffer hemiparesis, or weakness/paralysis of the left side of the body. Sometimes speech and language are more affected.”
Penrose-St. Francis educates families on the different types of strokes and the causes of stroke, as well as prevention and ongoing health and wellness.
“We work together as a team with the doctors as well as the patient and their family to make everything as easy on the patient as we can,” Ecklund said. “Stroke changes the patient’s life in an instant, but it also changes their family’s lives.”
“Once someone has suffered a stroke, they are more likely to have another stroke,” Ecklund said. “It’s frightening for the patients and their family, so extending our continuum of care on an outpatient basis to help them function in their home and get back to living their daily life, is significant.”
On the Sunday following Thanksgiving 2011, Susan Huff was talking with a neighbor who became alarmed at noticing Huff’s face drooping while also starting to slur her words.
“A couple weeks before that I had fallen and hit my head pretty hard, nearly passing out” Huff said. “I had been experiencing really bad headaches since, and my neighbor came by to check up on me.”
Huff was rushed to the hospital where doctors discovered a blood clot was preventing blood from reaching her brain, otherwise known as an ischemic stroke. Nearly 87 percent of all strokes fall under ischemic strokes.
“I guess I had a lot of brain swelling. I really don’t remember much because I was pretty out of it at the hospital,” Huff said. “At one point the neurologist told my son I might not make it.”
After about a week in the hospital, Huff was discharged and referred to outpatient rehabilitation.
“I couldn’t walk at all,” she said. “The stroke was on the right side of my brain, so it completely affected the left side of my body. I can walk with a cane now, but still have not recovered the use of my left arm and hand.”
Because each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, a stroke can result in neurological complications on the side of the body it affects. A stroke occurring in the brain's right side can produce any or all of these conditions: paralysis on the left side of the body, vision problems, quick, inquisitive behavioral style, and memory loss.
The continuum of care does not end when a stroke patient is discharged and Penrose-St. Francis recognizes the significance of extending care beyond the confines of the hospital. “Living Successfully After Stroke,” a full-day seminar to teach stroke survivors how to manage life efficiently and safely, was recently hosted at Penrose Hospital.
Driving after a stroke, understanding what causes uncontrollable emotional displays and how to manage them, learning how to deal with bowel and bladder control issues and navigating travel and leisure activity challenges were just a few of the topics covered at the stroke seminar.
“The seminar through Penrose was excellent,” Huff said. “I learned a lot and think anyone who has suffered a stroke could really benefit from all of the information available.”
Minutes can save vital brain function if someone is having a stroke. The range and severity of stroke symptoms vary considerably, but there are common characteristic and warning signs to look out for:
“I owe my neighbor my life,” Huff said. “If she hadn’t come to check up on me and knew the signs of a stroke, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Because of complications from high blood pressure, Mary Guinn was already in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, when she had her first stroke.
“I was supposed to go home the next day. It happened in the middle of the night,” she said. “The nurse came in and was trying to get me out of bed but I couldn’t stand, and I told her ‘I think I’ve had a stroke.’”
The nurse wasn’t convinced, but an MRI confirmed that Guinn had indeed suffered a stroke. Her doctor at St. Thomas More transferred her right away to Penrose Hospital, part of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs.
“The team at Penrose put me on a few different medications,” Guinn said. “I stayed at Penrose for about a week and was doing occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. I regained most of my mobility before going home, and continued doing the activities at home that I had been doing with the therapists.”
Her first stroke was at age 50, with another stroke striking about a year later. In between, Guinn says, she’s had several mini-strokes, or TIA’s. A transient ischemic attack (TIA), is sometimes referred to as a warning, but also increases your risk for a future stroke. TIA’s are also caused by a clot; unlike a stroke, the blockage is transient, or temporary.
The symptoms of a TIA are the same as a stroke, but typically a TIA will resolve on its own within an hour. Nonetheless, there is no way to know whether the symptoms are temporary or permanent and whether or not there is damage depends on how long the clot is in place. Because there is no way to predict when a clot will dissolve on its own, time is still of the essence.
Recognizing her strokes are caused by blood clots and as a member of the medical field since age 22, Guinn is aware of the risks and complications related to strokes. Her high blood pressure and a heart murmur remind her to stay attentive and pro-active about her health.
“I think I got good care at Penrose,” Guinn said. “But, at this point I think the TIA’s are something I will have to live with the rest of my life. It seems to be working out and that’s all I can ask for.”
While 87 percent of strokes are ischemic strokes, caused by a blocked artery resulting in a lack of blood flow to the brain, an equally critical type of stroke, hemorrhagic, occurs when weakened blood vessels rupture and the accumulating blood compresses brain tissue.
“Ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes have the same symptoms and both can be devastating,” Kelly Lockhart, MD, specializing in Critical Care Medicine and Pulmonary Disease at Colorado Springs Pulmonary Consultants, said. “The only way to tell the difference is with a CT scan.”
Even though hemorrhagic strokes are less common, they are responsible for nearly 40 percent of all stroke deaths. Slowing the bleeding and reducing compression on brain tissue right away is the only option doctors have for treating patients suffering a hemorrhagic stroke.
“Patients experiencing ischemic strokes can benefit from blood thinners to get rid of the clot, or we can go in and pull the clot out,” Lockhart said. “With hemorrhagic stroke patients we can only try to diminish pressure on brain tissue by controlling the bleeding.”
Because of the pressure caused by hemorrhagic stroke, vital oxygen and nutrients are withheld from brain tissue and the affected brain cells die within a few hours. Appropriate care administered as soon as possible can help to restore those nutrients and prevent additional damage.
The single most important risk factor for hemorrhagic stroke is hypertension, or high blood pressure. High blood pressure damages arteries and can weaken blood vessels to the point that they rupture, or in the case of an aneurysm, spots can fill up with blood and balloon out from the artery wall.
“The second highest risk factor is smoking,” Lockhart said. “Smoking is a significant factor in all disorders involving blood vessels.” Smoking causes plaque build-up in arteries and may do further damage to blood vessels. Family history can also play key a role in increasing the risk of stroke.
“Prevention is the best method when it comes to almost any type of stroke,” Lockhart said. “Understanding and managing risk, along with practicing healthy lifestyle choices, will considerably reduce the risk of having a stroke.”
Medical guidelines for hospitals regarding the treatment of stroke patients have progressed to a point that is improving the ultimate outcome for patients.
“Twenty years ago when someone came in suffering an ischemic stroke, the first thing we wanted to do was get their blood pressure down,” Glen House, M.D., Medical Director and Doctor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, said. “Now we know that letting the blood pressure remain moderately high while being closely monitored, ‘Permissive hypertension,’ can aid recovery more effectively.”
Hypertension causes blood to flow through arteries with more force, yet still transporting essential oxygen and nutrients. An “ischemic penumbra” is the area of injury caused by a stroke with still viable cerebral tissue, which benefits from the additional volume of nutrients.
“If managed correctly, the oxygen and nutrients carried by hypertension can help the damaged nerve tissue recover,” House said.
Monitoring stroke patients closely is imperative and Penrose-St. Francis Health Services works as a team to oversee the best care possible.
“From doctors to nurses to rehabilitation therapists, everyone communicates to keep a close eye on the patients,” he said. “The physicians are secure in knowing their patients are watched like a hawk.”
Coordinating fluid intake, diet restrictions, blood sugar levels and more, means patients receive the best care possible thanks to the team structure at Penrose-St. Francis.
“We have the rehabilitation area right in the middle of the hospital making it easy for specialists to see patients as quickly as they are needed,” House said. “Thanks to our rapid-response approach if there’s any concern, within minutes the whole team can be at the bedside to assess the patient.”
Due to advancements and improvements implemented at Penrose-St. Francis, “We are treating sicker patients, they are getting better faster and we are able to get them in and out faster,” House said.
Gains in technology have also reinforced a tremendous improvement in care, including a vision clinic run by Dr. Tom Wilson, a Neuro-Ophthalmologist. “When your vision isn’t working well, it’s very hard to do anything else,” House said.
Specialty equipment also helps to maximize recovery, such as neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which incorporates micro sensors to help a contracting muscle finish.
“We also use Nintendo Wii to help regain balance and control,” House said. “It’s a fun and useful way to work on rehabilitation; we call it Wii-hab.”
Bob Schumann will never forget May 23, 2014.
He was traveling with his newlywed daughter, Miranda, and her family to Yellowstone National Park for vacation when a wind gust likely grabbed their trailer, threw it off I-70, and rolled it at 65 miles per hour. Schumann, his son-in-law and granddaughter all suffered serious injuries, but 26-year-old Miranda was killed on impact. “There are really no words, it was just a tragedy,” he said. “She lit up a room, she was such a delight to me.”
In two weeks, Schumann will again make the trip to Yellowstone to honor his daughter’s legacy on the one-year anniversary of her death. It will also be a time to reflect on the journey he has walked since the accident that claimed his daughter and nearly took his own life. “Ultimately, there would have been a tragic ending to my story, too, if it hadn’t been for Dr. Shay,” he said.
Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, saw Schumann after he was transported immediately to Denver and then to Penrose Hospital following the accident. “The doctor in Denver texted Dr. Shay to see if he could get me in right away, even though he had three surgeries already scheduled that day,” Schumann said. “He got me in and they sent me down to Colorado Springs right away. Penrose was clearly more up to date and could do so much more for me than they could in Denver.” Penrose-St. Francis provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
The impact of the accident had internally pounded 62-year-old Schumann’s brain and his entire vascular system. He was diagnosed with a pseudoaneurysm, which occurs when an injury causes blood to leak and pool outside an artery wall, forming a hematoma. Dr. Shay inserted a custom-made stent into Schumann’s neck via his femoral artery, which reduced his risk of hemorrhaging and needing to be on blood thinners for the rest of his life.
Schumann has been healing physically and emotionally and back to his active lifestyle, including mountain biking, hiking, and camping. He also hopes to go skydiving in honor of Miranda, who had taken her own jumps before she passed away. “I’ve been doing anything I can to help other people,” he said. “Her death has challenged me to make a difference in the lives of others, because that’s what she did.”
What seemed like dizziness and a bad headache from an allergic reaction turned out to be a brain aneurysm that resulted in a hemorrhagic stroke, nearly taking 74-year-old Joann Meek’s life.
September 27 started out as a typical Saturday for Meek doing yard work. When she bent over to trim a row of bushes, the fragrance from the plants was suddenly overwhelming and she found herself reeling backwards, overcome by the buzzing in her head. “I just laid down on the walkway, thinking it would just go away,” she said. “It was the worst headache I’ve ever had. I found out later it was a blood spurt in my brain.”
Meek eventually got up, went inside, and took an allergy pill, thinking she’d had a reaction to the plants in her yard. “But then I got sick,” she said. “I couldn’t keep anything down because I had blood on my brain.” Meek continued to nurse herself with Motrin and naps and was only able to go to work a few days out that week. She did visit her primary care physician, who simply gave her a flu shot and sent her home. But Meek knew there had to be something more to her pain. “As long as I was sitting up or laying down, I was Ok, but as soon as I stood up, it felt like the roof was going to fall in on me,” she said.
On October 7, eight days after she had fallen over in the yard, Meek started slurring her speech while on the phone with her daughter. “She insisted on calling an ambulance to take me to the emergency room,” Meek said. “I just knew I needed a CAT scan, there was something going on.”
Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, ran a scan on Meek at Penrose Hospital to get to the bottom of her symptoms. Penrose-St. Francis provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network. Dr. Shay confirmed Meek’s stroke was caused by a cerebral aneurysm, which occurs when a weak section in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to brain ruptures and floods blood into the skull. He used an angiogram to locate the issue and then did endovascular repair by inserting a mesh coil and a stent, avoiding major brain surgery.
“Three days later they discharged me and I went home,” Meek said. Now a stroke survivor, Meek has had a full recovery and is back to her active lifestyle and enjoying time with her family. “I prayed every day that I would get through this, and because of what Dr. Shay did for me, I did. My whole family respects him so much. He’s saved so many lives and has such a wonderful team – they helped me know everything was going to be OK.”
Michael “Spike” Roberts has been playing the piano for 43 years, and not even a paralyzing stroke can keep him away from the ivory keys.
On a typical, September morning last year, Roberts woke up and went to make the morning coffee in his Yoder, Colo., home, one hour east of Colorado Springs. He suddenly collapsed, completely paralyzed on his left side. “I was on the kitchen floor, on my back, I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t even quite tell I was paralyzed,” he said. Thankfully, his girlfriend came into the kitchen just minutes later and called 9-1-1. “If she hadn’t been there, that’s probably where I would’ve died.”
Paramedics arrived quickly and ushered 60-year-old Roberts to Penrose Hospital, where the stroke team immediately went to work. Penrose-St. Francis Health Services provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
Due to the severity of his stroke, Roberts did not respond to a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) IV and was given the option of undergoing an experimental procedure to remove the blood clot in his brain. “When you’re lying there paralyzed, you’ll try anything,” he said. “But they were fantastic, whatever they’re doing at Penrose, it’s working.”
Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis, ran a catheter up Roberts’ groin, through his chest cavity and into his brain where it grabbed the blood clot and pulled it free. “From the minute the clot was out, they said my fingers and toes started moving again,” Roberts said. “I went in on a Friday and walked out Sunday morning.”
Roberts went through physical therapy to regain use of his left side and said he feels about 90 percent this spring. Most importantly, he’s back at the piano, though he hasn’t started playing solo again. “I’ve got certain rhythmic issues, my left and right hands tend to want to play together now instead of separate rhythms,” he said. “But two weeks after my stroke, I couldn’t play a single note, so I feel pretty great.”
Roberts has released 11 albums featuring his jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll styles and performed in venues of all sizes, from dive bars to the World Arena and the Telluride Jazz Fest. He plays with a band at 8 p.m. every Thursday at Benny’s Restaurant & Lounge, 517 W. Colorado Avenue. “I’m still writing music, too,” he said. “I’ve come a long way.”
Sixty-one-year-old Thea Platt has been on a journey, one filled with surprise, loss, deep sorrow, and a quiet hope.
In May 2012, after losing her job of 14 years, Platt suffered a stroke. “I was in a terrific depression,” she said. “I was doing nothing, I didn’t care about doing anything. I didn’t know depression was a risk factor for stroke, so when that happened, it was a wake-up call.” Platt had remembered the acronym F.A.S.T. (Face dropping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 9-1-1) and was able to get to Penrose Hospital in time to receive a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) to break up her blood clot. “Penrose took excellent care of me,” she said. “It was overwhelming, but I knew I was going to be OK.” Penrose-St. Francis Health Services provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
The stroke affected the use of Platt’s right hand and arm, which was particularly devastating as she was right-handed and enjoyed writing poetry. “It had been maybe a year since I had written, but I started using my left hand to write while I was still in the hospital,” she said. “Poetry is often my therapy.”
While she recovered, Platt’s sister Jan Boyce served as her caregiver, and the two attended a Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp in Peoria, Ill; Platt has gone every year since her stroke. “The camps were so crucial for me, a real turning point,” she said. “It was encouragement, and hope, and love, all at once – truly refreshing.”
Though she was on the road to recovery, Platt’s world was again shaken when Boyce, her older sister and once caregiver, also suffered a stroke. Boyce’s stroke was much more severe, and she needed nearly constant help in her recovery. Platt cared for her sister for as long as she could. “After her stroke, Jan still came to camp with me, but I needed volunteers to help be her caregivers,” Platt said. Eventually, Boyce needed to be in a long-term care facility. “It was a big challenge, emotionally. She couldn’t talk, and she died the way she lived, quietly, in her sleep. I was right there with her.”
Boyce passed away in March at 66. “I lost her when she had her stroke, but I had a glorious God-sent vision when she passed away of her at peace,” Platt said. Platt’s faith, along with her own second chance at life, give her motivation to continue, in honor of her sister. “God could’ve taken me all at once, but he chose to take just a little piece,” she said. “I realized it was something I needed to look at carefully.”
Rosie Scutti sat at her breakfast table reading the day’s newspaper when she felt a slight ripple across the right side of her face, from earlobe to chin. She reached up to swat away what she thought might be a pesky gnat. “But, it was late November, so I realized there shouldn’t be any gnats out,” she said. “I had no clue what it was.”
The rippling subsided, and 69-year-old Scutti moved on with her day, until she felt the same, strange sensation later. “It kept happening, every other day or two,” she said. “One time it happened right as I was trying to fall asleep.”
Scutti started to think it might have something to do with her family health history. “My mother had a stroke, and my father had carotid artery surgery on both sides of his neck.” After checking in with her primary care physician in Cañon City, she came to Colorado Springs for a sonogram, which revealed her own artery was 80-99 percent blocked. “It was shocking,” she said.
Scutti was given two options: surgery, which would require her to be under general anesthesia for four hours, or go see Scott Shay, MD, for a stenting procedure. “I decided to go with the stent,” Scutti said. “I’d had bad reactions to anesthesia before, and this would only take about two hours.”
Dr. Shay inserted a stent into her artery on February 19, and afterwards told Scutti her blockage was the worst he’d ever seen, with blood flow to her brain resembling a mere thread, the width of barely a human hair. “He couldn’t believe I hadn’t already had a stroke or died; I was very lucky,” she said. “Dr. Shay took wonderful care of me, I credit him with my life. He took the time to answer all my questions and explain the procedure to me, he never made me feel rushed or unimportant.” Shay is also the director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, which provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
Thanks to the stent, the left side of Scutti’s brain started receiving 10,000-times the blood volume it had been prior to the procedure. “When they told me that, it was so surreal,” she said. Scutti has almost fully recovered from her procedure and said her energy levels are much higher. “Before, doing normal things like folding laundry and washing the dishes felt like trying to climb Mt. Everest on my hands and knees.”
Scutti is thankful her blockage was caught before she suffered loss of any neurological or physical function. She believes alert physicians and knowledge of her family history and physical health were key in preventing stroke.
“It is so important to listen to your body,” she said. “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Theresa Olson knew something was not quite right when she was experiencing headaches for a month last fall, but the 59-year-old attributed them to menopause and tried not to worry.
“I was having palpitations and dizziness and then a headache that would last about three seconds,” she said. “It got to the point the headaches weren’t going away, and my daughter was the one who finally said ‘You need to go to the doctor.’”
After an MRI scan detected an aneurysm, Olson immediately saw Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. Penrose-St. Francis provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
Dr. Shay performed an angiogram to get a better look at Olson’s aneurysm, which was located in her carotid artery, a crucial blood supplier to the brain. “It was a shock,” Olson said. “I did have a history of high blood pressure and I had a lot of stress in my life at that point, but as soon as I met Dr. Shay, I felt totally at ease. He is a brilliant, confident doctor, and I had no fear going into surgery with him.”
Olson was presented with three surgical options, including an endovascular coiling procedure that would hopefully stop the aneurysm from rupturing and causing a stroke. “The aneurysm was larger than the MRI had originally showed and it had a protrusion, making it weak and more likely to burst,” she said. “Dr. Shay did coiling procedure and he absolutely saved my life.”
The surgery was performed in Penrose Hospital’s biplane neuroangiography suite, the only one of its kind in southern Colorado. “It was incredible; the staff was amazing, and the things they’re capable of doing in that facility are quite impressive,” Olson said. After one week of recovery, Olson felt 100-percent herself. “I rested, but Dr. Shay also encouraged me to get out of the house and go for walks. I really felt great. It’s amazing not to have constant headaches anymore.”
Olson’s experience has taught her to seize the moment, and she is thankful for the care and attention she and her family received while she was at Penrose Hospital. “It wakes you up, life can be short,” she said. “Now, I go on hikes with my friends, I take weekend trips, I go see all my kids, I don’t put those things off.”
For 10 years, Deb Nussdorfer has gone to work at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services as an RN and Magnet Program Director, but she never imagined her employer would one day save her life.
Nussdorfer, 60, had a hip-replacement surgery in January and two weeks later suffered a stroke while recovering in her home. “I was sitting, reading, when suddenly, I just felt funny,” she said. “There was a delay, some kind of disconnect between my brain and my arms and hands – it felt like someone else was moving them. I also had numbness across the lower half of my face.” An RN for more than 35 years, Nussdorfer knew the typical signs of a stroke. “My symptoms were unusual, but I knew it was a neurological event and that I needed to get to the ER immediately.”
When she arrived at St. Francis Medical Center, Nussdorfer underwent an MRI scan, which showed two places of infarction – tissue death due to lack of oxygen from blood flow – in the parietal lobe of her brain. Her symptoms were improving, but what was initially thought to be a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), or a mini stroke, was indeed a full-fledged stroke. The clot dissolved on its own and Nussdorfer has recovered with few residual effects. While she was already proud to be a Penrose-St. Francis employee, she said the level of care she received impressed her even further.
“I was seen immediately,” she said. “Each person followed all of the best practices and did timely procedures. I got education from the minute I walked in to the minute I left.” The stroke management team even followed up with a phone call two days after Nussdorfer was discharged to ensure she was recovering well from hip surgery and the stroke. “I would’ve expected nothing less, that’s what I see all the time. I’m pleased to say I work here,” she said. Penrose-St. Francis provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
In her recovery, Nussdorfer has been committed to lifestyle changes to minimize her risks of having another stroke, from starting a new wellness plan and losing 25 pounds to paying attention to her family history. “My dad died less than a year ago from a stroke and he’d had one several years before that, so it definitely made me more aware of the risks,” she said. “We do have control over healthy lifestyle changes, and I think especially as women and as a nurse, it’s important not to dismiss symptoms, but to take them seriously and act quickly.”
On a typical day last fall, 76-year-old Joe Johann tilted his head back in front of the bathroom mirror and reached up to put a couple of eye drops in each eye. “As soon as I put my arms down I started getting dizzy,” he said. “I realized later, when my arm was raised, it was stressing out my artery and cutting off the blood flow.”
In 2001, Johann had his first stroke and doctors warned him that the carotid artery in the left side of his neck was completely blocked, leaving it up to his right artery to get blood to his brain. “We were told there wasn’t really anything we could do for it, that as long as the right side was open, it would be OK,” said Joe’s wife, Carol Johann. But after his dizzy spell, Joe suspected it was time to take action.
He got to Penrose Hospital, where Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, did an angiogram and discovered Joe’s right carotid artery was 95-percent blocked; he’d had a second stroke. On October 3, Dr. Shay inserted a stent to increase blood flow in Joe’s remaining carotid artery, dramatically decreasing his risk for future strokes.
“Dr. Shay has a fantastic bedside manner,” Carol said. “He explained everything to us in great detail, to the point we almost didn’t even have to ask any questions. He even took pictures before and after the stenting and showed us so we could see the difference.”
The Johanns also said they were impressed with how Dr. Shay treated his staff at Penrose Hospital. “They all seemed to enjoy working there, and they really took care of us both,” Carol said. Penrose-St. Francis Health Services provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
Joe has recovered and said he felt back to his normal self shortly after receiving his stent. He is due for an angiogram the first week of June and expects everything to be in working order. “You have warning signs for a reason,” he said. “They say you should listen to your body, and it’s very true. If I hadn’t gotten dizzy, I might never have known that I was headed for a worse situation.”
Ann Hage shouldn’t have survived her stroke, but there were too many convenient coincidences along the way for her to believe her second chance at life was anything short of a miracle. “The Lord was not through with me yet,” she said. “He and Dr. Shay, they saved my life.”
The day after Mother’s Day in 2013, Hage, 74, was giving a piano lesson in her home to an adult student, who was supposed to have already left for a lunch date. Her student decided to stay 15 extra minutes for a bit more practice, when Hage suddenly lost all muscle control during a massive stroke. Her student called 9-1-1 and an ambulance came and transported Hage to St. Francis Medical Center. “That was around noon, my next student wasn’t scheduled until maybe 3:30, and it was a child,” Hage said. “The fact that she was able to stay a few extra minutes and was an adult, it likely saved my life.”
From there, Hage just remembers bits and pieces: getting strapped into a stretcher, a bumpy ambulance ride, being on the hospital roof and finally, riding in a Flight for Life helicopter to Denver. “They told my husband there were only two doctors in the state who could save me,” she said. One of them was Scott Shay, MD and director of interventional neuroradiology at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. At the time, Dr. Shay was on staff at St. Anthony Hospital in Denver and he saw Hage as soon as she landed. “He told my husband, ‘I’ll do all I can for her,’” she said. “And boy, he did. He was my miracle doctor.” Dr. Shay was able to retrieve the large blood clot lodged in Hage’s brain with a catheter inserted through the femoral artery in the groin. “He has marvelous ability and technology,” Hage said. “I know they were concerned it might burst and bleed in my brain, but he got it out in time.”
Dr. Shay relocated to Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in October. Penrose-St. Francis provides 24/7 advanced stroke treatment and was named a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission. Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the region’s leading healthcare network.
Hage recovered most of her mobility and is back to playing the piano. “I’ve played since I was 7 years old,” she said. She now plays for enjoyment, but taught lessons and played publicly for many years, including at The Broadmoor’s Pauline Memorial Chapel and for Catholic and Protestant services at Fort Carson. “We’re snowbirds now and go down to Florida half the year to spend time with our kids and grandkids – we’ve got 10 of them,” she said. “I know I am so fortunate to be here, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
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