On Aug. 28, 2014, Bill Boersma and his wife, Else, returned to their South Haven, Michigan, home after an evening visiting family.
Overcome with dizziness, Bill thought he would just go to bed and feel better in the morning. Else noticed he needed to hold onto the bedpost to steady himself as he walked.
Five minutes later, Else decided to wake him and help him walk around the house.
“I knew at that time there was something definitely wrong,” Else said. This wasn’t typical of her husband—an active, healthy 69-year-old who had traveled to 39 countries and loved hiking and gardening.
She found his walking stick, helped him to the car and drove to the emergency department at South Haven Community Hospital. By the time they arrived, he couldn’t move his left leg from the car. A head CT showed bleeding—a sign of hemorrhagic stroke.
Soon he was in a helicopter headed for Spectrum Health Structural Heart & Valve Center in Grand Rapids.
Thanks to the fast action that night of his wife and doctors, and Bill’s hard work during months of rehabilitation, he’s now back to the active lifestyle he enjoyed prior to the stroke. He went from not being able to sit up in bed to walking with a cane.
“Bill asked me later, ‘How come you didn’t just let me go to sleep?’” Else said. “I knew something was not right. What made me do that, I don’t know. But it was the right thing. If we hadn’t gone to the hospital, we would have no Bill.”
According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, one of the warning signs of stroke is sudden trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance.
Theresa Price, MSN, CNRN, and stroke program coordinator for Spectrum Health, said the acronym FAST is an easy way to remember the most common signs of stroke:
- Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
- Arm: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one drift downward?
- Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does speech sound slurred or strange?
- Time: If you notice any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
Other signs of a stroke include:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the leg, arm or face
- Sudden confusion or trouble understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
There are two main types of strokes—87 percent are ischemic strokes, caused by blockage of an artery, and 13 percent are hemorrhagic strokes, caused by bleeding.
Omran Kaskar, DO, a vascular neurologist, said some signs of stroke are ambiguous, such as dizziness, and it’s very difficult for someone not in the medical field to recognize them.
“If there are any new neurological changes that come on, call 911 immediately,” he said. “The other very important thing is to document what time the symptoms started because that determines what therapies we can use.”
Price said many stroke patients are tempted to lie down to rest, thinking that the symptoms will go away. But then they risk waking up with worsened symptoms and being outside of the treatment window.
“We say, ‘time is brain,’” Price said. “For every minute a stroke is left untreated, about 2 million neurons (brain cells) are dying. The amount of brain cells that die account to the amount of disability a patient may experience.”
Dennis Suzara, DO, a rehabilitation physician who helps stroke patients recover, added, “If you have any suspicion of stroke, it’s better to err on the side of caution and bring the patient in for evaluation.”
Thankfully, stroke patients can get the help they need every step of the way at the Primary Stroke Centers at Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals. Spectrum Health is the largest provider of stroke care in West Michigan and one of the largest in the state, Price said.
Bill was treated by emergency room staff, neurosurgeons, neurointensive care unit staff physicians and nurses, and progressive stroke unit staff.
He spent seven weeks in the hospital, most of that at the Center for Acute Rehabilitation located in Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. He went home in a wheelchair and continued outpatient therapy. He now walks with the assistance of a cane.
“They call me the poster child,” Bill said. “I worked hard and continued working after I got home. I kept doing lots of exercises.”
Else added, “He was like a rag doll, completely helpless. It’s a miracle. It’s been amazing to find out what he can do.”
Bill was motivated by wanting his active lifestyle back.
“It was determination, but it also had a lot to do with faith and God,” he said. “We had people praying in China, India and all around the world.”
About the people who cared for him, Bill said, “It’s more than a job. Everyone was always cheerful and willing to go the extra mile. What a positive experience.”
Both Drs. Kaskar and Suzara urged patients to work with their primary care doctor to monitor their risk factors for stroke: smoking, blood pressure, blood sugar, diabetes and cholesterol levels. Dr. Kaskar also urged eating a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and getting daily exercise.
“That will put you on a pathway to be healthier in general, as well as to prevent strokes,” he said.
Dr. Suzara also offered hope for those who have suffered a stroke. Hard work in rehabilitation, as in the case of Bill, can yield great results for patients.
“Just the other day, I saw a patient who had a very dense stroke on his right side, losing all function on one side, and two months later, he can walk with a walker and hold his kids,” Dr. Suzara said. “He’s not 100 percent, but he is improving greatly and will continue to do so.”
Meanwhile, Bill is looking forward to an active summer. During his winter in Naples, Florida, he rented an exercise tricycle. He loved it so much that his son found the same model on Craig’s List so he can continue cycling in Michigan.
“I want to be as active as possible,” he said.