Survival Story

“I said ‘Do what you can to take care of him,’” Kim Page told emergency responders moments after her apparently healthy 28-year-old son suffered a massive stroke at his Waldron, Ark., home.

Christopher Smallwood was flown to Sparks Regional Medical Center on Oct. 6, 2013 after his left side went numb and the back of his neck began to hurt. He yelled to his girlfriend Chaunta for help.

“I fell in the floor and couldn’t get up,” Smallwood said. At first, Smallwood said he didn’t want to call an ambulance. But after his family called a neighbor, who happened to be a first responder, they knew he was suffering from a stroke.

When it comes to strokes, every second counts. Patients can lose more than a month of brain life in a mere minute, according to Margaret Tremwel, MD, PhD, at Sparks Health System’s Vascular Neurology and Memory Disorders Clinic, also Medical Director of Sparks Stroke and Telemedicine Stroke Programs.

Page credits the helicopter crew of Tulsa Flight for making the first decision that ultimately saved her son’s life that day.

“Somebody on the crew just knew and said that Sparks was the best place to go,” she said. “From the time they landed at the house and he was taken to the hospital, it was about 20 to 24 minutes.”

CODE STROKE

The flight crew activated “Code Stroke” in the air and a team of Sparks doctors and nurses waited in the emergency room for Smallwood’s arrival.

“Every second counts and EMS believes the same thing,” Dr. Tremwel said. “The ER is well-versed in how to treat stroke patients. When I arrived, a CT scan and blood work were already done.”

First responders are trained to identify stroke patients in the field. They knew since such a short amount of time had passed since Smallwood first experienced symptoms, he might be a candidate for a clot-busting drug therapy available at Sparks.

Tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) therapy restores blood flow by dissolving the blood clot causing the stroke. The medication works best if given within 4.5 hours of symptom onset.

Even though not much time had passed, Smallwood’s stroke was too massive to respond to the drug.

Smallwood’s condition was so severe he’d aspirated and had begun to choke on his own saliva on the way to the hospital. He had precious little time.

That’s when Smallwood was quickly taken into the neurointerventional suite where Clint Wood, MD, an Interventional Neuro-Radiologist, inserted a tiny tool called the Solitaire™ FR Revascularization Device through Smallwood’s groin artery all the way up to the clotted artery in his brain.

Dr. Wood successfully removed the clot that had been starving Smallwood’s brain of oxygen.

The only other nearby facility for that kind of clot-extraction is UAMS in Little Rock, a trip Smallwood possibly would not have survived. With these tools, it takes Dr. Wood and his team less than half an hour on average to restore blood flow from the time a patient is wheeled into the operating room.

“This is a game-changer,” Dr. Wood said. “This device has rewritten our paradigm for acute stroke treatment.”

Dr. Wood also used a device called the Penumbra to remove additional plaque built up in Smallwood’s artery.

RECOVERY

Within 6 days, Smallwood’s neurological deficits resolved completely. He is once again normal.  Smallwood went home to his 2-year-old boy and girlfriend after a mere ten days of recovery at Sparks. He’s worked at a rock yard in Monroe for more than 10 years but has been told to take it easy for now.

“I’ll play with my kid for a couple weeks and try to go back to work,” Smallwood said.

With maintenance drugs, a low dose aspirin and a well-balanced diet, he’s expected to fully recover, according to his doctors.

HIGHEST RATE OF STROKE VICTIMS

Arkansas ranks the highest in the nation in the number of stroke victims, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Studies show southern comfort foods, known to be high in salt and fat, may be a contributing factor, along with this area’s high rate of smoking and obesity.

“Even if cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, what you eat is tremendously important,” Dr. Tremwel said.             

To Dr. Tremwel, prevention is key, and it’s why Sparks Regional Medical Center is working toward becoming a comprehensive stroke center.

“Our goal here at Sparks is to be number one in the rate of risk factor reductions. This is the most important step to reducing stroke and heart disease in our community and state,” Tremwel said.

Dr. Tremwel is a leading neurologist in the field of stroke management. She spearheads Sparks’ telemedicine stroke program which allows her to direct and manage stroke treatment at hospitals within more than a 50-mile radius.

Dr. Wood joined Sparks Health System in July 2012, making Sparks the only medical facility in the region to provide complete neurovascular care.

“The goal of every comprehensive hospital is to have one place that has a confluence of experts that do this every day,” he said. “We do this a lot, and it’s not just me that gets good, it’s our whole team. They take it seriously, they move fast.”

Moving fast is one of the things that will ensure Smallwood can spend the upcoming holiday season with his family.

“As a parent, if this happens to your kid, take them to Sparks,” Page said. “They saved his life, the first responders, the nurses, doctors, everybody. I don’t know how to say ‘Thank you’ enough, we appreciate everything they did.”

 KNOW WHERE TO GO

Sparks Regional Medical Center is northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma’s only Gold Seal accredited Primary Stroke Center offering complete neurovascular medical and surgical care for patients suffering strokes and/or aneurysms. Sparks also provides emergency stroke telemedicine service to more than 15 regional hospitals. Its Stroke Care has been rated #1 in the state of Arkansas for both medical excellence and patient safety by a leading healthcare ranking company. Sparks also provides this region’s only accredited Chest Pain Center.

For more information about Sparks Health System Stroke Program, visit www.SparksHealth.com.