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Stroke Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to remind our community that a stroke can happen to anyone, at any time, at any age. While the risk for stroke increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 34 percent of people hospitalized for stroke were under the age of 65 in 2009. On top of that, 73 percent of young Americans are not familiar with stroke symptoms and the immediate need for medical attention.

So, not only do we want to make sure you know the signs, but why you need to call an ambulance immediately if you suspect a stroke.

What exactly is a stroke? It is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot (ischemic) or ruptures (hemorrhagic). When that happens, the brain is deprived of the blood (and oxygen) it needs and brain cells die.

Why is it so important to call 911 the moment you spot signs of a stroke?

For every minute a stroke goes untreated, the victim loses an average of 2 million brain cells and 14 billion connections between brain cells.

Quick treatment not only improves chances of survival but also may reduce and reverse disabilities resulting from a stroke.

It is the fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.

Someone suffers a stroke just about every 40 seconds and one of those will die of a stroke every four minutes.

Much of the damage from an ischemic stroke can be minimized or reversed with proper treatment. This is where time and expertise come into play. If a stroke patient doesn’t get treatment within three to four hours of symptom onset, their outcomes may not be as positive. This is why calling 911 is so important. Taking a stroke victim to the hospital on your own wastes precious time. Calling 911 puts many wheels in motion, from emergency responders to hospital Emergency Departments to Stroke Team Activations. It also ensures the patient is taken to a hospital with the right level of expertise for treatment.

St. Mary’s Medical Center has earned a number of stroke certifications and awards. We have been designated a Stroke Center Level II from the state of Missouri which means we have demonstrated that we provide definitive care that offers stroke patients the best outcomes for survival and recovery. To earn this designation, St. Mary’s met rigorous criteria in use of the evidence-based guidelines for stroke care and treatment and physician and staff education. St. Mary’s Medical Center has also received the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Get With The Guidelines-Stroke Gold Plus Quality Achievement Award with Target: StrokeSM Honor Roll. The award recognizes the hospital’s commitment to providing the most appropriate stroke treatment according to nationally recognized, research-based guidelines based on the latest scientific evidence.

A clever way to remember the signs of a stroke, and helps encourage you to call for emergency medical help immediately, is the concept of F.A.S.T., which stands for:

F – Face drooping

A – Arm weakness

S – Speech difficulty

T – Time to call 911

Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven or lopsided? Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “The sky is blue.” Is the person able to correctly repeat the words? If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and say, “I think this is a stroke” to get the person to the hospital immediately. Time is critical, so don’t delay. Also note the time when the first symptoms appeared. Emergency responders will want to know.

May is Stroke Awareness Month. Help us make more people aware that stroke threatens millions of American lives, from every background. At the same time, stroke is largely preventable, treatable and beatable. During Stroke Month, I hope you’ll get familiar with stroke symptoms and help us help your loved ones recover from the number one cause of disability today.

— Barbara Miller is St. Mary’s Stroke Program Coordinator and can be reached at 816-655-5563.