09:49 AM

Rhea: BE FAST - How stroke awareness saved me


Randy R. Rhea, M.D., is a family physician at Carilion Clinic Family Medicine – Vinton

Randall Rhea headshot

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a stroke. It’s a reality that none of us want to face, yet it can happen to anyone at any time. I’ve been a physician for 38 years and never thought it would be me. I was used to seeing patients, not being one. Then, on April 2, I became part of the statistics.

My story starts on a typical Saturday workday. I was the sole provider at my family practice, with our receptionist Dana Tatum and our nurse Pam Hartman working with me. I didn’t feel good that day, but I blamed it on being worn out. Being tired seemed normal because of my busy life and lack of sleep.

When I saw my first patient, I had trouble explaining things to her; the words just wouldn’t come out. I saw my next patient and had no problems with the physical examination. Just moments later, I struggled to talk to Pam.

Thank goodness for Pam. I was so lucky to have her with me that day. She asked me if I was feeling okay, and from our conversation, she picked up on my stroke symptoms. She immediately called an ambulance — she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I’ll always be grateful for her quick thinking at that moment. Before I knew it, I was at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

As a family provider, I don’t usually experience an emergency department setting. The first thing I picked up was how quickly a team of professionals ran to help. They knew that timing was everything when a stroke was suspected. In my confusion, I was able to ask, “Why rush?” Looking back, I owe everything to their timeliness.

The stroke team was already prepared for a CT scan when I arrived. They searched my head and arteries for a blood clot or bleeding — the standard first step in stroke care.

From there, I was rushed to the stroke trauma room. The team knew that tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a “clot-busting” drug, offered me the best shot at recovery. The team worked diligently to bring down my blood pressure and began tPA immediately once it was in a safe range.

I knew where I was but couldn’t think of the word “hospital.” When I got to the ICU, it all came back quickly. I still have a little trouble with word placement. However, I’m part of the lucky 40% of people who respond to tPA and the even more fortunate 2% who make a full recovery. After two days in the ICU, I made significant progress and was transferred to the Stroke Step-Down Unit. Even though I called my MRI a “microwave” a few times, I made it out fine.

The stroke that I experienced was reversed entirely because of the quick actions of Pam and the team in the Emergency Department. It’s like it never happened.

I had the chance to take some much-needed time off for rest and recovery. A couple of weeks getting plenty of sleep and taking walks on the Roanoke River Greenway offered me the right kind of medicine. Before too long, I felt better than I had in a while. Now, I’ve returned to caring for patients of my own.

My experience these last few months has taught me some important lessons. My best advice is to pay attention to how you feel, especially if you are over 40. Take care of yourself, and don’t brush off anything. I recently saw the acronym BE FAST, which offers sound advice on recognizing the signs of a stroke. BE FAST stands for balance (unsteady), eyesight changes, face drooping, arms (weak or numb), speech difficulty, and finally, time.

The saying “time is brain” really is true. Tissue is lost quickly. If you recognize the signs of a stroke, don’t delay. Don’t feel silly about calling for help. Without the support that I received, my story may have had a different outcome.

Thank you to my care team at Carilion, from my nurse Pam to the Emergency Department staff and everyone in between. I feel so blessed to be back at work alongside such outstanding professionals. They truly saved my life, and I couldn’t be more grateful. To all of you: thank you for the incredible work you put in each day for every patient, including me. Your commitment has made all the difference.