Health & Fitness

You can save your brain if you have a stroke, but only if you act F.A.S.T.

A graphic displaying the effected parts of a stroke patient’s brain is shown by Dr. George Luh at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif.
A graphic displaying the effected parts of a stroke patient’s brain is shown by Dr. George Luh at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif. aseng@sacbee.com

It’s fairly common knowledge that time is of the essence when someone is having a stroke.

But the Chuckanut Health Foundation’s Stroke Education Task Force wants everyone in Whatcom County to know how to act F.A.S.T. to increase the odds of survival and recovery.

This version of fast isn’t just about speed; it’s about identifying the symptoms of stroke and responding quickly. The F.A.S.T. acronym stands for: Face (can the person smile?); Arms (can they lift their arms?); Speech (can they say a simple sentence?); and Time (act fast and call 911 immediately).

“Knowledge is power. If you know about this, you’ll be prepared to recognize it and do the right thing. In the case of stroke, calling 911 is always the right thing,” says Dr. Dave Lynch, Chuckanut Health Foundation Board President and Chair of the Stroke Education Task Force. “You might say to yourself that, ‘Gee, I don’t feel that bad.’ But know that’s the earliest sign of damage in your brain, a sign your brain is having trouble.”

In 2014, 400 patients were treated for stroke at the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Emergency Room, according to Sue Sharpe, Chuckanut Health Foundation Executive Director. The average age of those patients was 73, though ages ranged from 23 to 99. After identifying stroke as a community health issue that needed better understanding, the Foundation worked with partners – including PeaceHealth, Northwest Medical Society, Whatcom Volunteer Center and EMS – to get the FAST word out with its “Stand Up to Stroke” campaign.

You might say to yourself that, ‘Gee, I don’t feel that bad.’ But know that’s the earliest sign of damage in your brain, a sign your brain is having trouble.

Dr. Dave Lynch, Chuckanut Health Foundation Board President and Chair of the Stroke Education Task Force

Making the community better aware of the signs of stroke and how to respond is just part of the puzzle for the task force. The organizations involved also have been working behind the scenes to ensure that everyone involved in emergency care – including EMTs, physicians and hospital staff – knows the best practices for stroke response.

To understand why speedy treatment is so important, it helps to understand what a stroke is. An ischemic stroke is the most common type, caused when a blood clot blocks an artery carrying blood to the brain. When blood flow is cut off, brain cells can be damaged and die.

Strokes can affect people in different ways depending on the severity and the part of the brain that was damaged.

Treatment for strokes can save the injured brain tissue and reverse some symptoms, but for the treatment to work, the patient needs to arrive at the hospital as soon as possible, ideally within an hour. Because a stroke doesn’t hurt and it may only present mild symptoms at first – difficulty with speech, numbness or loss of strength on one side – people don’t treat it with the same urgency as something like a heart attack, though the two share similarities.

Time is of the utmost importance. If you recognize a stroke and don’t go in immediately, you may not be able to reverse it.

Dr. Dave Lynch, Chuckanut Health Foundation Board President and Chair of the Stroke Education Task Force

“Delaying that care for a couple hours can make it so you can’t get better,” Lynch says. “You can save your brain. If you roll over in bed and say, ‘I’ll see how I feel in the morning,’ you’ve lost that chance.”

The story Lynch tells to drive it home is about his brother, who was 50, a vegan, a swimmer and in great shape when he had a stroke. He woke up in his home in Seattle one morning and he couldn’t get out of bed because one side of his body couldn’t move. He tried to call for help but could barely speak. Luckily, his brother-in-law was visiting, and he was able to have him call 911. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where doctors quickly found an embolism in his carotid artery and were able to remove it. Because of the speedy treatment, he was able to completely recover.

“It’s that kind of dramatic difference this can do,” Lynch says of getting treatment at the first sign of stroke. “Time is of the utmost importance. If you recognize a stroke and don’t go in immediately, you may not be able to reverse it.”

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