Stroke awareness program stresses crucial 3-hour treatment window

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 11:17 p.m.

Nancy Gillespie was driving her kids to school in September when she went blind.

She had no warning of the powerful stroke that temporarily blocked her vision, and she doesn't remember much right before she passed out. Her daughter Mara, now 12, jumped out to dial 911 and summon a neighbor.

“When I woke up, I was in the intensive care unit, probably until the next morning,” said Gillespie, 49, of Shaler, whose recovery will take center stage on Tuesday at PNC Park during a Pirates game against the San Francisco Giants. “I think it was the early diagnosis that saved my life, definitely.”

Though Mara's quick action got Gillespie rapid attention to avoid permanent injuries, thousands of Americans aren't so fortunate. About 80 percent of stroke victims miss a three-hour window for a critical emergency treatment, often because loved ones don't recognize the symptoms, said Larry Schaer, associate director at the Peoria, Ill.-based Strike Out Stroke campaign.

The national stroke awareness program will make a Pittsburgh debut just before the Pirates game, where Gillespie, her family and her doctors from the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Allegheny General Hospital will stand for an on-field salute.

“Treatment needs to be given urgently,” said Jack Protetch, stroke program coordinator at AGH.

The time element is crucial, because doctors often will not administer a key blood clot-killing medicine more than three hours after stroke symptoms materialize, said Dr. Crystal Wong, an AGH neurologist who treated Gillespie. She said the treatment, known as tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, can lose effectiveness after that window.

Stroke patients who receive the intravenous treatment have a 30 percent higher chance that their symptoms, such as slurred speech or numbness, will dissipate before turning permanent, Wong said.

“We all see quite a number of people who had symptoms last night and waited six hours or half a day for the symptoms to go away,” she said.

Schaer cited several straightforward ways to spot a stroke:

• Ask the person to smile. If his or her face droops on one side, the person is probably having a stroke.

• Ask the person to lift both arms with palms facing up. If the person is having a stroke, one of those arms will probably drift down.

• Ask the person to repeat a sentence of three to five words. If the person has trouble repeating the phrase clearly or has slurred speech, he or she is probably having a stroke.

“Every minute, they're losing 1.9 million brain cells,” Schaer said of the 800,000 stroke victims reported each year in the United States. “Having knowledge will make a big difference.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676.

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