Emily Bodenschatz had a lot on her mind—her 11-month-old son, the first trimester of her pregnancy, cleaning up the kitchen.
Stroke definitely was not on the to-do list for the healthy, active 35-year-old woman.
Until she had one.
There she was, talking to herself as she washed dishes in her Grand Rapids, Michigan, home on April 11, 2018, when her speech became nonsensical.
“All of a sudden, I was discombobulated,” she said. “I couldn’t make coherent thoughts come out of my mouth.”
She tried to minimize it. She chalked it up to a strange pregnancy symptom.
But things quickly worsened.
“I felt so weak,” she said. “I stood against the counter and sort of slid down to the floor. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move.”
A clot had formed in her right middle cerebral artery, blocking blood flow to the area of the brain that controls the left side of her body.
A hurried trip to the ER
After Emily’s collapse in the kitchen, she cried out to to her husband, Jim, who was changing the baby’s diaper upstairs.
“I could tell even then that the words I was saying weren’t coming out right,” she said.
Jim rushed into the room to find his wife slumped on the floor, the left side of her face drooping.
“I think you’re having a stroke,” he said. “I’m taking you to the hospital right now.”
I couldn’t believe how well she did. She was basically 100 percent that night.
She protested. Just call the doctor, she told him.
“He put my shoes on and carried me out to the car. I remember saying to him, ‘You forgot to put my left shoe on.’ He hadn’t―I just had no feeling on that side of my body.”
A neighbor stayed with the baby as Jim drove Emily to the closest emergency department, at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.
A nurse called in Gary Mikula, DO, to evaluate her in the stroke “hot spot” of the emergency department.
At 35, Emily is exceptionally young to suffer a stroke. Although they can strike younger adults, nearly 75 percent of strokes occur in people 65 and older.
But from her facial droop, paralysis and confusion, Dr. Mikula said, “It looked like she was having a very large stroke.”
He immediately called for an ambulance, knowing that if she had an ischemic, or non-bleeding stroke, she would need to be transferred to the Spectrum Health Comprehensive Stroke Center for treatment.
He went with Emily as she underwent three CT scans, assessing the images immediately, looking for signs of bleeding. He also called a radiologist and neurologist to evaluate the scans.
The tests indicated a non-bleeding stroke—which meant it could be treated with a clot-dissolving drug or a thrombectomy.
“As she was getting the last study done, they said, ‘EMS is here.’ She went right from the CT scan table to the ambulance,” Dr. Mikula said. “There was not a minute wasted.”
Removing the clot
As soon as Emily arrived at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, the staff whisked her into the interventional radiology room.
Emily received the clot-busting drug, tPA, but the sizable clot measured at least a centimeter across, neurosurgeon Justin Singer, MD, said. The medical team determined tPA likely would not fully dissolve the clot.
It’s as remarkable as anything I’ve seen―the fact that she went from complete paralysis (on her left side) to complete recovery.
It had to be removed.
Dr. Singer threaded a catheter to her brain. Once he reached the clot, he used a retrievable stent to capture the clot and withdraw it from the artery. Blood flowed freely once again to Emily’s brain.
Only 86 minutes had passed from the moment Emily arrived at the Blodgett emergency department to the moment when blood flow was restored at Butterworth Hospital.
When it comes to strokes, time is brain, neurologists say. The quicker a patient gets treatment, the better the results.
And for Emily, that speedy response time began with Jim, who insisted on getting emergency medical help, even when Emily resisted.
The medical team—from physicians, nurses and secretarial staff—also met the mark in ensuring quick response.
“From a speed point, we were world class,” Dr. Mikula said. “In all my 20 years (in emergency medicine), it’s as remarkable as anything I’ve seen—the fact that she went from complete paralysis to complete recovery.”
Emily’s husband also marveled at his wife’s quick recovery.
“She was my wife one minute and then a stroke patient another minute and then, a few hours later, she was my wife again,” Jim said. “I couldn’t believe how well she did. She was basically 100 percent that night.”
Such strokes can be catastrophic, causing long-term or permanent disability. They can be fatal. But thanks to quick treatment to remove the blood clot, Emily made a dramatic comeback.
“I have very minimal deficits,” she said, sitting in her room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, just 36 hours later. “There’s no residual weakness today.”
“I can’t believe she made it through all this,” Jim said. “She’s healthy. The baby’s healthy. It’s unbelievable.”
For Dr. Singer, Emily’s quick recovery is gratifying. It reinforces efforts made across the health system to reduce the time needed to assess and treat strokes, so patients can get effective treatment as quickly as possible.
“When I talk about it, I can’t get a smile off my face because I am so happy,” Dr. Mikula said. “It’s just something that remarkable—that I will always remember.”
Knowing Emily was pregnant—with two lives affected by her recovery—made her rebound all the more rewarding. A reassuring ultrasound shows the child Emily carries, at 11 weeks of pregnancy, is moving around and has a steady heartbeat.
As she woke in the hospital after the procedure, Emily had a hard time believing she had a stroke.
“People my age don’t have strokes,” she said.
She saw a picture of the blood clot removed from her artery.
“It was pretty terrifying,” she said.
Just days after her stroke, she talked happily about the first birthday of her son, Emerson.
When she thinks about her close call, she credits her faith with helping her survive it.
“I have a really strong faith,” she said. “I know there was a huge prayer chain that went on.
“All I can do is thank God and keep going.”