May is Stroke Awareness Month

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(Sergio R. Angeles / Longmont Observer)

Written By: Shirley Bruns

Shirley Bruns is a stroke survivor, a member of the Longmont community and a Longmont Observer reader. She submitted this piece as an opinion in order to raise awareness and spread information about strokes. The Longmont Observer thought her work was worth a feature article. 

“May is National Stroke Awareness Month.” According to the National Stroke Association, nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. will have a stroke this year, one occurring every 40 seconds, and taking a life approximately every four minutes.

What is Stroke?

A stroke is a “brain attack”. It can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of race, sex or age. It occurs when blood flow to an area of brain is cut off. When this happens, brain cells are deprived of oxygen and begin to die. When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain such as memory and muscle control are lost.

How a person is affected by their stroke depends on where the stroke occurs in the brain and how much the brain is damaged. For example, someone who had a small stroke may only have minor problems such as temporary weakness of an arm or leg. People who have larger strokes may be permanently paralyzed on one side of their body or lose their ability to speak (known as aphasia).

Right-brain strokes can result in emotional changes, loss of concentration, memory loss, spatial perceptual problems, and physical weakness or immobility on the left side of the body. Left-brain strokes can result in compulsive behavior, language problems, and physical weakness or immobility on the right side of the body. Some people recover completely from strokes, but more than two-thirds of survivors will have some type of disability.

Fast Facts on Stroke
• In the United States, stroke is a leading cause of death. Killing nearly 133,000 people each year, and can cause serious, long-term adult disability.
• There are an estimated 7 million stroke survivors in the U.S. over age 20.
• Approximately 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year,
• African Americans have almost twice the risk of first-ever stroke compared to Caucasians.
• Two million brain cells die every minute during stroke, increasing risk of permanent brain damage, disability or death. Recognizing symptoms and acting FAST to get medical attention can save a life and limit disabilities.
• Up to 80% of strokes are preventable.
• High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for stroke.

What types of strokes are there? All strokes happen in the brain.

• Ischemic stroke occurs when arteries are blocked by either blood clots or the build-up of plaque and other fatty deposits. About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic.
• Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a brain aneurysm burst or a weakened blood vessel in the brain breaks and leaks blood into the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes account for 13 percent of strokes, but are responsible for more than 30 percent of all stroke deaths.
• A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a mini-stroke which mimics stroke symptoms which last less than 24 hours before vanishing.

Know the Warning Signs (FAST)
Few people know the signs of stroke. Learning them – and acting FAST when they occur – could save your life or the life of a loved one. Remember that strokes strikes FAST and you should act fast too. Call 9-1-1 if any of the following symptoms occur:

FACE: Facial Drooping or FACIAL WEAKNESS
Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

ARM: Arm Weakness
Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

SPEECH: Speech Difficulty
Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?

TIME: to Call 9-1-1
If the person shows any of these symptoms or signs, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately. Remember stroke is an emergency!

What are the medical risk factors?
Previous stroke, previous episode of TIA (or mini stroke), high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and carotid artery disease are medical risk factors.

What are the lifestyle risk factors?
Smoking, being overweight, and drinking too much alcohol are all lifestyle factors. You can control these factors by quitting smoking, exercising regularly, watching what and how much you eat, and limiting alcohol consumption. Making simple lifestyle changes can dramatically reduce your stroke risk. Stroke is an emergency!

Stroke Recovery

Stroke recovery will start in the hospital and depending on the severity of the stroke your stay could range from a few days to even a few months in rare cases. From there you will either go to an inpatient rehab facility, skilled nursing facility, or be sent home. You will be supported by a team of trained professionals who will try to optimize your functioning and independence. Your rehab team can include any of the following: physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, social workers, and psychologists. The recovery process may take years.

Longmont Stroke Support Group

Longmont has a lifeline for people recovering from strokes and their caregivers – the Longmont Stroke Support Group, coordinated and facilitated by Mary Odrzywolski, an occupational therapist at Longmont United Hospital. Odrzywolski says the group provides “inspiration but no therapy,” works because people don’t feel self-conscious because they are in a group with other people who can relate. For instance, meals are a social occasion where most people don’t think about the act of eating. But after strokes, many stroke victims are embarrassed at the effort it takes to eat.

When stroke happens to family members and friends, we are suddenly in need of information. Stroke doesn’t just affect an individual. It impacts everyone who has a relationship with the person who has had the stroke. Those in the group “walk in your shoes” or deal with similar challenges you face now.

Strokes are devastating and for so many of us life will never be the same, but Mary O gives us self-confidence and tools needed to get back to life. The Longmont Stroke Support Group meets once a month, the second Thursday of the month from 6:00–7:30pm at Longmont United Hospital. Visit our web site at: www.longmontstrokegroup.com.

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