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North Texan Recovering From Stroke, Thanks To Fast-Acting Family And New Treatment

UT-Southwestern Medical Center
Last Veterans Day, Mary Alice Stam, right, was tending to a war veterans memorial in Colleyville when she had a stroke. Ellie Raj, left, noticed her stroke symptoms and called for help.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. – it kills almost 130,000 Americans each year. Getting the right treatment as quickly as possible is key. 

A North Texas woman is recovering from a stroke thanks to fast-acting family members and a new surgical treatment that’s showing promise for patients in clinical trials.  

On Veterans Day last November, Mary Alice Stam was working in a Colleyville park, tending to a war veterans memorial.

“I really feel strongly that we should honor our men who have fought in the military,” she says.

Her friend Ellie Raj stopped by. She says something just seemed off.

“I noticed her speech started to slur,” Ellie says. “She’s reliving things in the past. She was talking about her girls when they were younger. It was one of those things that I thought: This isn’t the Mary Alice that I know.”  

An important phone call

Ellie called Mary Alice’s daughter.

“Your mom is slurring and she’s speaking incoherently,” Ellie told her.

That call wasn't what Mary Alice wanted.

“I thought how dare her say that about me,” Mary Alice said.

You don’t want to mess with Mary Alice. This fiery grandma isn’t shy about giving her age – she’s 78 – and she’s a bit particular about her medical care. That’s because she’s a retired nurse.

“I have a real thing about people trying to be nurses that aren’t,” she says.

And she thought she was feeling fine.  

“I’m not having any problem,” Mary Alice recalled. “And I wasn’t having a stroke.”

But she was.

Specialists available 24/7

A CareFlite helicopter whisked Mary Alice off to UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. It has what’s called a Level 1 comprehensive stroke center -- similar to Level 1 trauma centers – with stroke specialists who work round-the-clock.

Dr. Lee Pride gave a tour of the facility.

“All these operating suites are right here and we have neurosurgeons here 24-7,” he said. “We have neurointerventionalists like me here 24-7, stroke neurologists 24-7.”

Pride says many stroke victims just don’t get to the hospital fast enough.

“Millions of neurons die in a five to 10 minute period of time after a stroke is happening,” he said.

Mandy Dirickson, a nurse practitioner, examined Mary Alice that day. Video taken by UT-Southwestern showed her working with Mary Alice.

“Mary, I’m going to raise this arm and I want you to hold it up,” Dirickson told Mary Alice. “Ready? This arm I’m touching. Don’t drop it.”

Dirickson was testing whether her arm drifted, dropped or moved at all.

“When I got to the left side of her body her arm just hit the bed,” Dirickson said.

'She could have needed a feeding tube'

Doctors found a clot about as long as a dime in Mary Alice’s brain.

Dirickson says had Mary Alice not gotten to the hospital quickly, she would have faced severe impairments.

“Paralysis of the left arm, probably some paralysis of the left leg,” Dirickson says. “She would have had slurred speech and she could have even needed a feeding tube.”

Stroke patients who get to the hospital fast enough typically get a clot-busting drug called TPA – it dissolves the clot and gets blood flowing again.

That wasn’t an option for Mary Alice because she was on a blood thinner.

A new procedure

Instead, doctors tried a relatively new procedure. UT-Southwestern calls it endovascular rescue therapy. Several recent clinical trials show it can be beneficial, and hospitals across the country are using the treatment.

Dr. Pride inserted a catheter into Mary Alice’s groin – and it traveled up to the brain. A wire mesh tube got to work.

“You position this little tube across the clot,” Dr. Pride explained. “And then you uncover the device and the device expands into the clot and entangles it.”

Dr. Pride plucked out the clot and the blood vessel was wide-open once again.

“You inject the X-ray dye and it flows up there and lights up like a big tree,” Pride says. “It looks great. Then you get the big sigh of relief. Ahh. It’s a very exhilarating feeling.”

'They gave me my mom back'

Mary Alice’s daughter, Judy Sherrill, is thankful.

“They gave me my mom back, they gave their grandkids their grandma back and my dad his wife back,” Sherrill said. “We’re blessed.”

Now Mary Alice can go back to gardening at her Tarrant County home – and she’s even getting behind the wheel.

“Everybody thinks it’s the Indianapolis Speedway,” Mary Alice says. “I’m not going to drive back to Dallas to get my hair done right away, but I will be driving.”

Mary Alice could have been facing life in a nursing home. Instead, she’s got her freedom – she’s back on the road.

Learn more: Stroke symptoms

May is Stroke Awareness Month. The American Stroke Association offers these tips for spotting a stroke:

  • Drooping face:  Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?
  • Weak arms: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • Difficulty talking: Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like "The sky is blue." Is the sentence repeated correctly?
  • Other symptoms: Sudden confusion or trouble understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; severe headache with no known cause.

Call 911 if someone is showing these symptoms. Get the person to the hospital immediately.
Source: American Stroke Association

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.