Surviving stroke, one day at a time

May. 14, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Monday marked the start of the second full week in May, which is National Stroke Awareness Month. For Sanford resident Janet McNeill, the date had personal significance: It was the 20-month anniversary of her stroke.

McNeill was cooking potatoes for a church group at her home when she started leaning to the side, eventually losing her balance. She then realized she couldn't feel her hand. Overwhelmed, she laid down on the floor and waited for her husband to return from working outside.

After he had come in, and she had explained what happened, they agreed she needed to go to the hospital. They called 911, and McNeill — who is now 71 and was 69 at the time of the stroke — spent several hours in the Central Carolina Hospital emergency room before being sent to UNC Hospitals. She spent 25 days there recovering from the stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body.

A stroke expert who spoke in Sanford last Thursday said people should always call 911 when they think they might be having a stroke, as an ambulance can frequently get people to a hospital faster than a friend or family member, plus the responders can offer valuable medical help. McNeill said she's glad she did that, although she didn't do one thing the expert suggested to help prevent a stroke — get frequent checkups. She went on a long walk every morning and had no major health issues, so she didn't see the doctor often. One stroke later, she's on blood pressure medicine that might have prevented it from ever happening.

The expert who spoke was Dr. David Huang, head of the stroke division at UNC Hospitals, one of two hospitals in North Carolina to be named a comprehensive stroke center. That designation means it can handle the complicated cases that other hospitals can't. Central Carolina Hospital became a primary stroke center last month, a step below a comprehensive center, which Huang said is good news for locals.

"You've got a perfectly good hospital that can handle 80 or 90 percent of all cases," he said. "... My job is to work with these local hospitals and make sure they give you all the care they can, and then get them to send you to me if that's what's needed."

Those rankings came after McNeill's stroke, caused by a small blood vessel bursting in her brain, but she said she's happy with the care she received. She was back to teaching Sunday School classes at Edgewood Presbyterian Church within just a few months, and she can walk fine with a cane.

"I've come a long ways and can pretty much dress myself, and I can swallow and can see," said McNeill, whose speech is also back to normal. "There's so many things that could've been worse."

McNeill did receive fairly speedy treatment, and Huang said that is really what makes all the difference.

Speed is important, he said, because the most effective and least risky care — intravenous drugs — can only be administered within the first three or four hours. To assist doctors in giving the fastest care possible, Huang said, stroke victims need to get to a hospital right away and should also be able to inform doctors of their medical history. It also helps to have copies of medical records on hand, or at least stored somewhere family and friends are aware of and can find easily.

"We end up spending days or weeks in discovery," he said. "And that's the last thing we want to do."

One person at Thursday's event, the second annual Lee County Stroke Awareness Luncheon, asked if she could carry her medical records on a flash drive because her actual folder is several inches thick. Huang said that actually wouldn't be a good idea because some hospitals might not be able to download the files. If the folder is too bulky, he said, it would be all right to go through and pick out only the most important records — the most recent documents, as well as details of medications and major issues — and leave the rest behind.

Joy Murphy, a longtime stroke survivor and facilitator of a support group that meets monthly at the Lee County Enrichment Center, said that group is always welcoming new members. Anyone interested in joining can contact the Enrichment Center at (919) 776-0501 and ask for her.

Murphy said that whether they've had one or not, everyone should recognize the signs of a stroke. They include: A droopy face, dizziness or confusion, slurred or strange speech, sudden numbness on one side of the body, trouble seeing or a severe headache.