Sunday, January 1, 2017

Having a Stroke Wasn’t Her Finish Line


I was 27 when I completed a road race during an ischemic stroke

I am extremely grateful bystanders recognized my symptoms as serious.

Emily Welbourn, stroke survivor and business development director for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association in Tacoma.


I was certain I’d been stabbed above my right eyebrow.

While running a 3.5-mile race in May 2013, I felt a sudden, piercing pain in my forehead at precisely the one-mile marker. I was 27 years old, in the best shape of my life, and had trained for this race for months. I couldn’t stop now. I squeezed my eyes shut to cope with the pain.

One foot in front of the other. By the time I crossed the finish line, my left hand no longer worked to open a water bottle. I fell while trying to stretch. Bystanders at the finish line noticed that one side of my face was drooping and took me to the medical tent in a wheelchair.

Fortunately, a physician was there to examine me and I’ll never forget his instant diagnosis: “Emily, you are having a stroke.”

At my age, no one ever expects to hear those words. But I barely had a moment to process them. All of a sudden I was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Thanks to American Stroke Association guidelines, the hospital team was ready for me when I arrived.

Immediately a CT scan was performed, which confirmed an ischemic stroke, caused by a blood clot on the right side of my brain. Already a small portion of my brain tissue had died.

Looking back I am extremely grateful that bystanders at the finish line recognized my symptoms as something serious and that I got to the hospital quickly. When it comes to stroke, time is brain. Nearly two million brain cells die for every second that a stroke goes untreated.

Luckily for my type of stroke, there is a drug called tPA that can eliminate a clot and reverse the effects of a stroke, but it must be administered within a 3- to 4-hour window. I received tPA with one hour to spare.

In Washington, we have the Emergency Cardiac and Stroke System of Care. It is designed to speed up care and save lives. Calling 911 triggers the system – operators are trained to identify stroke and dispatch an ambulance, first responders notify the hospital while the patient is in transport, and the hospital stroke team is ready to diagnose and treat the patient upon arrival.

Washington stroke patients are receiving treatment faster: 48 minutes from the time they arrive at the hospital until the administration of tPA, according to the American Stroke Association, compared to 75 minutes in 2011 when the system went into effect. The goal was 60 minutes or less.

I can tell you that recovering from a stroke is challenging. It took many months of physical and occupational therapy to regain strength on my left side. I had to re-learn how to add and subtract. But today I am running again and even finished the Boston Marathon in April 2015.

I know not all stroke patients are as fortunate, but you can make a big difference. Know the warning signs of a stroke. Think F.A.S.T – F for face drooping; A for arm weakness; S for speech difficulty; and T for time to call 911.

Time is the number one factor in reducing the likelihood of death or disability from stroke. By knowing the warning signs and dialing 911, you can give someone the opportunity to thrive after a stroke and not just survive.

Emily Welbourn works as business development director for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association in Tacoma. She previously was a volunteer with the organization.
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