Sizing up stroke signs–earlier

    The medical team at Abington Memorial Hospital and Montgomery County emergency workers have developed a tool to better identify stroke patients in the field–before they arrive at the hospital.

    When you call 911 in Abington, for instance, emergency workers with the Second Alarmers Rescue Squad show up to help. These days, the crew is armed with a check list that helps it gauge the likelihood and the intensity of a possible stroke.

    Capt. Christopher Reiff coordinates clinical care for the squad.

    “There are so many stroke mimics–low blood sugar, head trauma, overdose–and this helps us isolate and eliminate those possibilities,” said Reiff. “Is this really a stroke patient or another medical emergency?”

    Rescue workers look for stroke signs, assign a number, and then call ahead to the hospital team. Nurse Deborah Murphy says the staff prepares differently when a “7” is expected through the emergency room doors. Doctors may order clot-busting medication from the pharmacy or call for a CT scan.

    When it comes to stroke, health advocates say, “Time lost is brain lost.”

    Murphy says not knowing the warning signs is the No. 1 cause for delay. Denial is No. 2.

    “People think, ‘This can’t be happening to me. I’ll just lay down and take a nap and see if it goes away,’ ” she says.

    Sudden weakness on one side of the body is often an early sign of stroke. People can also feel confused or have difficulty speaking. After that, they may have trouble with coordination or walking.

    Willow Grove resident David Wacker suffered a stroke on July 23, 2008. He was 59.

    Doctors at Abington treated Wacker with the medication tPA, tissue plasminogen activator. For certain patients, the drug can ease the effects of stroke.

    The drug, which comes with risks for hemorrhage, is most effective in the first hours after stroke sign appear. So identifying the right patient candidates early is critical.

    Wacker got to the hospital in 10 minutes and has no lingering effects from his stoke or the medication. He’s quit smoking and is back to his normal routine as a long-distance runner.

    Stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States; for many people, weakness, vision and speaking problems are permanent.

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