Stroke survivor aims to inspire others to think FAST

Stroke symptoms: A survivor tells her story

Terri Cunningham knew what a stroke looked like. She saw her mother suffer two strokes. Her grandmother died from a cerebral hemorrhage. She knew the common signs.

That knowledge stayed trapped in Cunningham’s mind on April 20 – the day she slowly fell to the side and then collapsed at home. Unable to tell her thoughts to her husband, Cunningham only could say “Call 911.”

Cunningham, 54, lives in the small northeastern Colorado town of Sterling with her husband, Mike. She is a grandmother, a former EMT and a person with a grasp of health concerns and the health care system. She has been diagnosed with the muscle disease myasthenia gravis and fibromyalgia. She had headaches and changes in her blood pressure in the days before her stroke. She had an appointment set with her primary care physician, but the emergency came first.

“I had this soft, fatty bump on my head. I rubbed it, closed my eyes and I could see this vision of a red blob that goes splat – like you see when people step on a jellyfish at the beach,” Cunningham said.

She tried to tell her husband what was wrong. He thought she was having a seizure related to her medical condition. She knew it was more and got him to make the call for help.

The ambulance crew arrived and started a Stroke Alert. That let the emergency team at Sterling Regional MedCenter know to expect a possible stroke patient. At the hospital, Cunningham was assessed and seen by a Denver-based neurologist via the local hospital’s Telehealth program, Telestroke.

“A lady came up on the computer screen. She said to give me this drug and get me on a helicopter to Denver,” Cunningham recalled.

What is a stroke?

Each year about 800,000 people in the United States experience a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  It is the country’s fifth-leading cause of death.

There are two main types of stroke and treatment for each type is different:

  • An ischemic stroke is when blood flow and oxygen to the brain is blocked because of a clot in an artery. The drug to break up clots can be given in a rural hospital or the patient may need emergency transport to a hospital with more specialized services.
  • A hemorrhagic stroke is bleeding in the brain and requires surgery at a medical center that offers brain surgery services.
  • A third event, called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), is a temporary block that lasts a few minutes but does not damage the brain. Although not an actual stroke, a TIA can come before an actual stroke.

The Telestroke program that helped Cunningham uses secure video and audio links for immediate access to experts in stroke care. The physician uses a high-definition camera to see the patient. The physician controls the camera to virtually look around the room and visit with the patient’s friends and family and the local health care providers. All of those people can see, hear and talk to the off-site neurologist.

The technology lets everyone come together with the right information to make the best decision on care. For the patient to survive with as few permanent health effects as possible, he or she must receive the right care as quickly as possible. If that can be given at the bedside rather than after a flight out of town, it can be life-changing if not life-saving.

Cunningham had had an ischemic stroke and needed the clot-busting drug to restore blood flow to the brain.

“They gave me the drug. It was five minutes later that I could open my eyes and smile. I started getting better,” she said.

Cunningham was still flown to Denver as a precaution and after three days returned home. Now she is gardening and even bowled to help her team capture first place in its league.

She said although she knew about stroke, neither she nor her husband knew to follow the FAST acronym outlined by the American Heart Association:

F – Face drooping

A – Arm weakness

S – Speech difficulty

T – Time to call 911

Cunningham credited the emergency team in Sterling and the use of Telehealth for getting her the immediate care she needed then to get back to a normal life today.

“I want to share my story because the more people who know FAST the better,” she said. “Now my life is different. I am positive and appreciate every breath I take. It’s all about attitude. And we are going to be OK.”

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