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Knowledge and Fast Action Saved My Life!

Because Gary Somma
recognized stroke
symptoms and insisted
wife Jean Kirshenbaum
go to the ETC within
three hours of the onset
of her stroke, she was
treated with rt-PA.

It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend 2002. After returning from a movie, I fell asleep but woke up a few minutes later with a bad case of hiccups. I asked Gary, my significant other at that time, to get me some sugar to cure them.

"I can't understand you; you're slurring your words," he said. I repeated it, yet he still didn't know what I meant. He also noted that I had a severe droop on the left side of my face. "I think you're having a stroke," he said. "I'm going to call 911."

"Don't be ridiculous, I'm just groggy from sleeping," I insisted, thinking that he must be losing his mind; after all, I was just 55. "If you call 911, I'm never speaking to you again," I hollered. That he understood. He hollered back: "If I don't call 911, you may never speak to anyone again!"

I tried to get out of bed, but I couldn't stand and fell to the floor. That's when I realized he might be right. The paramedics arrived in just a few minutes and took my vital signs. I felt fine. There I was, lying in my leopard print nylon nightgown, being lifted onto a gurney by two strong young people. We directed them to take me to Abington Memorial Hospital's Emergency Trauma Center, about 25 minutes away at normal speed. Although I had had a horrendously painful headache for the prior three days-worse than any migraine I ever suffered-I felt just fine physically. But I was beginning to get scared.

It was after midnight when we reached the ER. The staff contacted the neurologist on call, James Cook, M.D., who, it seemed to me, was there in a flash. In the meantime, I had a series of tests, including a CT scan. When I asked him if the stroke were mild or severe, without hesitation Cook answered, "Severe." (Now I knew Gary was right.) The stroke was affecting two-thirds of the right hemisphere of my brain. After explaining the risks, Cook administered tissue plasminogen activator (rt-PA). Amazingly, my symptoms disappeared. I was then admitted to the intensive care unit, where in the morning I suffered another stroke, and spent the next five days being monitored. I also learned that the stroke had been precipitated by a dissection of my right carotid artery-usually a fatal event.

I probably wouldn't be alive to tell this story if Gary had not been familiar with the symptoms of stroke. Or, if Abington didn't have a stroke center capable of administering rt-PA and dealing with the event on an emergency basis. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Although the stroke has left me with fatigue and low energy, I am back on the tennis court and leading a near-normal life.

Not knowing what the future might hold for me (would I end up an invalid from another stroke?), I had suggested to Gary that he might want to move on, but he wouldn't hear of it. Also, four months later, after being together for 12 years, Gary and I were married in a small wedding at our home.

By Jean Kirshenbaum, Wyndmoor


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