Have you ever been near the Hood River Fire Department or the Aquatic Center when a Life Flight helicopter takes off? Watched as someone is loaded onto the helicopter for the emergency trip into Portland? Have you ever wondered, “Who is that poor schmuck?”
A few weeks ago, “that poor schmuck” was me.
Late one March morning, I was the one pulled out of the ambulance on a narrow gurney, strapped to an even narrower gurney, loaded onto the helicopter (with blades noisily whirring overhead all the time), and whisked into the air.
The story of how I got there is amazing, but it’s also amazing that I’m not lying as a vegetable in some local nursing home. I had a stroke that morning that the Providence Hood River Hospital ER doctor says would have been “catastrophic” if it hadn’t been treated in time. And I’m sure we can all agree that “catastrophic” isn’t a word you want to hear a doctor say, especially about you.
The story began earlier that morning, when my wife, Leanne Hogie, noticed the left side of my lip was drooping lower than the right side. She also thought I was slurring my words. When I mentioned I had a headache, she quickly realized I might be having a stroke.
Since I’ve had atrial fibrillation (afib) for more than 15 years, the possibility of a stroke has always been on our radar, but kudos to Leanne for spotting the early signs and taking immediate action. And immediate action was needed, because the magical blood-clot-busting drug tPA, (tissue plasminogen activator) must be administered within three to five hours of when the symptoms first begin.
The moment Leanne walked me into the ER and mentioned “possible stroke,” the place lit up with activity, and I was immediately prepped for a CT scan. tPA is a magical drug, but it can’t be given unless you truly have a blood clot, not just unusual bleeding. It turns out I certainly did have a blood clot, a big one behind my right eye, and that prompted the word “catastrophic.”
As in, “If that clot had lodged over here instead of there ...” You can probably finish that sentence yourself.
As the drug was being prepared, a TeleStroke screen was wheeled out, and soon we were chatting face-to-screen with a neurologist in Portland. She could see my CT images and other information, and in consultation with staff here, they agreed that, if I was to have much of a future at all, tPA would have to be a part of it, and soon. The clot-busting drug began to flow into my veins, then up to my brain.
I’d love to report that I was then out of the woods, but I wasn’t. tPA is great at busting blood clots, but it can sometimes over-do it and cause excessive bleeding, including in the brain. It can also move a clot from one spot to another, making a bad situation worse, so I needed to be monitored for 24 hours somewhere that could intervene surgically if necessary.
Thus enters the whirlybird. The ER docs here and the face on the computer screen discussed how urgent it was that I get to Portland, and they decided I was a Priority No. 1. Apparently, that meant my case was too urgent to take I-84, so they called in the Life Flight Network, which has a base in Dallesport. While the tPA started busting my clot, a helicopter started our way. Soon I was in an ambulance heading toward the Aquatic Center. How I wished we were going only to swim laps, but no.
As Leanne watched, I was loaded beneath those blades. She had her first teary moment then, as she saw me fading away — certainly geographically, and if things went badly, then maybe mentally, physically, and emotionally, too.
After a smooth and caring flight, we landed on the roof of the Providence Portland Medical Center, where another crew was waiting to whisk me into Critical Care and a face-to-face with the neurologist I’d seen on the TeleStroke screen. She was pleased I was getting tPA, and she set me up with an intensive regimen of regular monitoring and testing in case anything went south.
By then, Leanne had driven from the Hood, so we spent some of the evening together. Believe it or not, the hospital food was tasty, and I even slept pretty well — or at least as well as a person can sleep with a blood pressure cuff going off every hour and a nurse then shining a light into your pupils. The next morning, an MRI confirmed no bleeding in my brain, so they let me go home. And I’m 100 percent as good as before — for whatever that’s worth.
In retrospect, there might be three takeaways from my stroke adventure: First, we’ve got good medical care here in Hood River. From the moment we walked into the ER, I felt in capable, compassionate hands. I’m not a doctor, but in retrospect, it seems they did everything right.
Second, though, as great as our doctors are, we’re a small town, so naturally we can’t have someone on staff who can do every procedure known to medicine. If our doctors advise you to get to a more advanced facility, take that advice.
And third, it’s important to become informed. Thank goodness Leanne knew what to watch for and what to do. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without that speedy intervention, I could easily be very different right now.
We suggest you learn and remember the BE FAST technique to detect a stroke — see sidebar.
The day may come when you’re the one being loaded onto the Life Flight helicopter. I hope not, but if you are, I hope you’re not “that poor schmuck” I could have been, but instead “that lucky dog” I turned out to be. Remembering to BE FAST might help.
Mike Hendricks lives in Hood River.