When symptoms of stroke occur, timing is everything: Brooklyn pol’s story of survival

When someone walks into my district office, the first thing he or she is greeted with is an elbow-high counter with an assortment of helpful literature. Residents can help themselves to a wealth of useful resources on a wide range of topics — how to protect oneself from identity theft, the 2012 New York City parking calendar, and so on.

We also have a pamphlet entitled “Important Stroke Information,” with a list of warning signs as well as New York City’s “Designated Stroke Centers.” I never dreamed that one day that information would save my life.

I was planning on enjoying a relaxing day with my wife Vilma before my Sunday events and evening drive up to Albany. Snow was melting outside on a chilly Saturday morning, even though spring was only two weeks away. This is when my life-changing saga began.

While it didn’t occur to me that something was wrong, Vilma, in the other room, heard me struggling to walk. I couldn’t keep my balance as I lumbered awkwardly toward the front door and I couldn’t even grasp the doorknob. My left hand and entire left side were beginning to go numb although, incredibly, I didn’t even realize it.

Adding to Vilma’s worry, at some point during the early stages, I sneezed, so when I walked back to grab a tissue, I didn’t even see her out of my left eye as I staggered past her. The vision in my left eye was severely compromised.

Vilma turned me around to face her and saw in my face that paralysis was beginning to set in on the left side. Calmly she told me, “I think you’re having a stroke,” and helped me over to the sofa to sit me down.

She asked me to repeat something she said, but all that came out of my mouth was unintelligible gibberish and then she asked me if I could move my arms and legs. I couldn’t. So, with orders for me to stay on the sofa, Vilma called 911.

Once EMS arrived, I was reasonably positive that I communicated to the ambulance personnel that I wanted them to bring me to Maimonides Medical Center’s Stroke Center, but it was Vilma who told them to bring me there — a decision that saved my life, and gave me an excellent chance at recovery.

Coincidentally, only two weeks earlier, Vilma had seen an episode of the show “ER” called “Alone in a Crowd,” in which you were able to hear the thoughts of the character, portrayed by Cynthia Nixon, who was suffering from a stroke.

Nixon’s character was treated with an innovative corkscrew-shaped device called a Merci Retriever™ — short for “Mechanical Embolus Retrieval in Cerebral Ischemia” — which was approved for use on stroke patients by the FDA in August 2004.

When employed, the Merci Retriever™ is able either to dissolve the blood clot with the discharge of a clot-dissolving drug called TPA (Tissue Plasminogen Activator), or physically grab and remove the clot from the brain of someone experiencing an ischemic stroke, the kind of stroke I was having (a loss of blood supply to part of the brain due to a clot obstructing the blood from flowing freely).

The team of doctors working on me — led by Dr. Steven Rudolph, director of Maimonides’ Stroke Center, and Dr. Jeffrey Farkas, formerly Maimonides’ director of Interventional Neuroradiology — wanted to use the same device to reverse my stroke.

I was very lucky. Because I was administered TPA, combined with use of the Merci Retriever™, as well as a biplane imaging system that provided real-time 3D imaging of my brain (also approved by NYSDOH just days earlier) — all within the crucial three-hour window known as the “golden hour” — the initially devastating effects of my stroke were reversed.

Because of the state-of-the-art treatment I received, I was able to return to the Capitol two weeks after my stroke, albeit with someone else in the driver’s seat. A week after that, I was given permission by the doctor to drive myself.

If Vilma was not with me the morning of March 5, 2005, there is a strong likelihood that I would not be an assemblymember today, let alone even write these words. Thankfully, she knew to act “FAST” — a life-saving acronym that everyone should be aware of:

F – Face: Is one side of the face drooping down?

A – Arm: Can the person raise both arms?

S – Speech: Is speech slurred or confusing; is the person unable to speak?

T – Time: Time is critical. Call 911 immediately.

You probably wouldn’t even be able to tell, just by looking at me, that I suffered a massive, life-changing stroke seven years ago. And when I say “life changing,” I don’t mean physically life changing. Knowing that I could have been confined to a permanently vegetative state, or died, has altered my entire approach to my health.

Since my stroke and subsequent full recovery, I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken advocate of stroke prevention. I cannot stress strongly enough the life-saving importance, when the symptoms of stroke begin, of getting to one of New York City’s Designated Stroke Centers.

Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for one out of every 16 deaths. Someone in the U.S. dies of a stroke every three to four minutes, and I am living proof that those statistics simply should not be. We need constantly to raise the public’s awareness about strokes, because those frightening numbers can and must be reversed.

The bottom line is this: Time is very much of the essence. My quick, complete recovery from a massive stroke is attributable to the fact that I got to the Maimonides Stroke Center very quickly. Getting to a Designated Stroke Center — not waiting for your personal doctor to call you back, and not going to a hospital’s emergency room — is the key.

Steven Cymbrowitz is an assemblymember in Brooklyn’s 45th Assembly District.

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