A banner promoting stroke awareness hung in the lobby as Nancy Weeks arrived at a Grand Rapids Griffins hockey game with her husband and grandkids.
She glanced at it, but had no inkling how quickly that message would become very, very personal.
As the hockey players battled for the puck on the ice, a blood clot would form in an artery in her brain. By the end of the night, she would lie in an operating room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital as a neurosurgeon worked to restore blood flow.
“I never dreamed it would happen,” said Nancy, a 73-year-old retired school secretary, as she recovered from the stroke in her hospital room.
She counted her blessings. She could have had a stroke when she was alone and far from medical help.
Instead, the stroke hit with her husband, Guy, close at hand. And they were just minutes from expert stroke care.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Nancy and Guy Weeks live in Stanwood, Michigan, about an hour north of Grand Rapids. Their insurance company gave them tickets to the Griffins game, so they made the trip to Van Andel Arena to enjoy the evening with two of their grandchildren.
In their seats high above the ice, they watched as a guest of honor—a stroke survivor—dropped the ceremonial puck at the start of the game.
It was part of the Spectrum Health Stroke Awareness event.
A host of vascular, neuroscience and trauma specialists provided education about stroke risks and the value of early detection and treatment. They offered free screenings of carotid arteries, the blood vessels in the neck that bring blood to the brain.
That’s where Nancy’s stroke started—in the right carotid artery.
Unable to stand
The first sign of trouble occurred about midway through the game, as the Griffins battled with the Rockford IceHogs.
“I had an awful headache,” she said.
Use FAST as an easy way to identify the most common symptoms of a stroke. Get help immediately if you observe any of these symptoms:
F – Face drooping
A – Arm weakness
S – Speech problems
T – Time to call 911
Source: The American Heart Association
Guy watched her lean forward, her hands over her eyes. This headache seemed especially bad, so he suggested they leave early. No, Nancy said, she wanted to let the kids watch the whole game.
After the game ended and the crowd began to head for the exits, Nancy tried to stand. Her left leg didn’t work.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t think stroke,” she said. “My head hurt too bad to think.”
Guy tried to help her up. He noticed her lip drooping. He realized her left arm also had no strength.
Alarmed, he sent their granddaughter to flag down an arena employee. Soon, four medical personnel carried Nancy down the stairs to a wheelchair. A quick ambulance ride took her to Butterworth Hospital.
Justin Singer, MD, a Spectrum Health neurosurgeon was one of the many specialists promoting stroke awareness at the Griffins game. He had just arrived home when the emergency department called. He immediately headed to the hospital.
He found Nancy’s left carotid artery had become blocked and created a blood clot, which lodged in the right middle cerebral artery.
In the catheterization lab, he performed a minimally invasive procedure to address both issues. Using a catheter inserted into a blood vessel at the groin, Dr. Singer placed a stent in the carotid artery to open it.
Although Nancy received the clot-busting drug, tPA, the 2-centimeter clot was too big to dissolve. Dr. Singer threaded a suction catheter into the brain artery and pulled out the clot.
“She ended up suffering a very small stroke when she was at risk of having a much larger stroke,” he said. “She could have lost the entire right side of her brain.”
A major stroke in that area could have paralyzed her left side, affected her vision and interfered with brain functions needed for making associations.
Teamwork made a good outcome possible, Dr. Singer said. It started with Guy recognizing the stroke and the need for help, and it included Van Andel Arena staff, the first responders and the emergency department doctors and nurses.
“You need to get help quickly. That really culminates in good outcomes for patients,” he said. “Again and again, we say, ‘time is brain.’ That’s one of the reasons why community outreach is especially important.”
Ready for rehab
Four days after the stroke, Nancy transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. She began working with speech, occupational, recreational and physical therapists to regain the functions affected by the stroke.
In physical therapy one afternoon, she guided a walker around colorful cones. She walked up and down a small flight of steps. She practiced climbing into a car.
“Very good work today,” said Lauren Van Seters, a physical therapy assistant. “We will keep working on balance and strength.”
Back in her room, Nancy said she didn’t feel quite as tired as she did the first few days after the stroke.
With rehab, she hopes to return to the full slate of activities she enjoys.
She and Guy, married 52 years, have six children, 15 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. They fish and camp.
Nancy likes to read, sew and garden. Guy does woodworking and, in the summer, they travel to craft fairs to sell his products.
“It felt good to get up and walk,” she said. “It’s hard, but not as bad as you think it would be. I think, after everything, I’m doing pretty good.”
“We feel very fortunate,” Guy said.
“Yes, very thankful,” Nancy said.