For southern Maryland’s Gary Willis, what was supposed to be a typical afternoon bike ride would lead him to three of MedStar Health’s nine renowned hospitals.
Last summer, Gary was enjoying a bike ride when he felt a sudden, overwhelming heaviness in his arm. Unable to react, he collapsed on the side of the road. He was having a stroke.
Luckily for Gary, Nicole George, a nurse technician at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, happened to pass by and immediately called the paramedics. Gary was rushed to nearby MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, a certified primary stroke center.
“When I arrived at St. Mary’s, I underwent a full assessment that included a comprehensive exam that looked for brain damage,” says Gary. With stroke care, time loss is brain loss. So, it is important to get immediate stroke care to increase the likelihood of a full recovery and decrease the amount of damage to the brain. “When the neurologists saw that I had a hemorrhagic stroke, they knew I needed emergency treatment right away.”
MedStar St. Mary’s offers ischemic stroke patients a clot-busting drug known as tPA or tissue plasminogen activator. However, because Gary was suffering from a hemorrhagic stroke, he needed to have a neurosurgeon on hand in case that level of surgical care was required. So, the doctors at MedStar St. Mary’s quickly put Gary onto the MedSTAR Transport helicopter to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital — a Joint Commission designated primary stroke center with an emergency stroke team.
Upon arrival at MedStar Georgetown, the stroke team, under the supervision of Dr. Dennis Landis, provided immediate medical intervention to manage the bleeding in Gary’s brain and prevent further complications and damage. Fortunately, Gary did not require neurosurgery to treat the stroke.
For the next nine days, Gary was cared for by his revered medical team of MedStar Georgetown stroke experts. “I can’t say enough about my team of doctors at Georgetown,” says Gary. “The care I received was similar to a five-star hotel, people came to check on me constantly; and each time, they were so kind and made sure I was receiving the best care I could.”
Because of MedStar Georgetown’s research partnership with Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), Gary had access to a unique clinical drug trial supervised by Dr. Chelsea Kidwell, director of both the university’s stroke center and MedStar Georgetown’s Comprehensive Stroke Program.
The study, available only through MedStar Georgetown and GUMC, evaluates Albumin to see if it can help reduce swelling in the brain after a stroke. While Albumin’s effectiveness is still being studied, Gary believes having access to this drug saved his life.
“Patients like Gary are vital to our clinical trials,” says neurologist Mason Markowski, MD, one of Gary’s stroke physicians. “We are running a study that will help us learn about how we can save more lives in the future. With enough time and the right medicine based on the patient’s type of stroke, we can intervene and salvage as much of the brain as possible.”
Rehabilitation is a vitally important component of stroke care. In fact, many stroke survivors regain lost function and independence with the help of rehabilitation specialists. Gary found such care at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (MedStar NRH), which has been ranked by physicians for 17 consecutive years as one of America’s best hospitals in U.S.News & World Report. Also, MedStar NRH has one of the largest stroke programs in the country.
“I had heard nothing but good things about MedStar NRH, and knew I would be well taken care of, just like I had been at MedStar St. Mary’s and MedStar Georgetown,” Gary says. When he left MedStar Georgetown, Gary could barely raise his thumb. After an intensive 14-day stay at MedStar NRH, he was able to leave with the help of a walker, a tremendous feat made possible thanks to advanced rehabilitation services.
“We help people have the quickest possible recovery from their stroke, while keeping them medically stable, and teaching them how to avoid having another stroke,” says Dr. Brendan Conroy, medical director of the Stroke Recovery Program at MedStar NRH. “We also teach our patients how to avoid ‘bad habits’ during their recovery, and we work with their family and friends on how to help stroke survivors during the recovery period.”
Gary also credits his wife, Robin, who was there for him every step of the way. “Having my wife be my advocate is what helped me get through some of the toughest times,” says Gary. “Not only having the best team of doctors, but also my wife, made all the difference in my recovery.”
When Gary returned to his home in St. Inigoes, Md., MedStar St. Mary’s arranged for him to have two weeks of in-home therapy. During the following six weeks, Gary participated in outpatient therapy at MedStar St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Medicine program including occupational and speech therapy services.
Today, Gary rides a stationary bike, swims, uses light weights and practices some occasional yoga. “I’ve returned to my job, and I commute to Washington, D.C., where I work for the U.S. government,” he says. Thanks to the specialized stroke services he’s received, Gary is back to leading a full life.
Gary credits the MedStar Health system for helping him return to his normal life. “Staying within the system made it easier for me as a patient. I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the issues other patients may have to deal with when being transferred,” he says.
Dr. Conroy explains. “We share documents throughout the MedStar system so that I could review everything that the MedStar St. Mary’s and MedStar Georgetown physicians did for Gary, as well as which medicines were provided and which medicines may have caused him problems.”
Gary is on the road to a full recovery. “I plan to keep working at it. Having a second chance keeps me going,” he says. “Luckily for me, I’m in good hands with MedStar Health.”
Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States. There are several factors that put people at risk of stroke including obesity, race, smoking or exposure to second hand smoke, physical inactivity or age. The risk may increase with certain medical conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
F - Face: Ask them to smile. The inability to smile or a one sided expression could indicate a stroke.
A - Arm: Ask them to raise both arms. Stroke symptoms can include one-sided muscle weakness or paralysis.
S - Speech: Ask them to say a simple sentence. Stroke symptoms may include confusion or slurred speech.
T - Time: CALL 911. Reduce the time for receiving medical attention. Delay may increase the possibility of permanent damage or death.