Strokes are a serious medical emergency.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 800,000 Americans annually suffer a stroke, with about three-quarters classified as first-time occurrences. It’s the fifth-leading U.S. killer at nearly 130,000 people a year, or one out of 20 deaths.

Every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke, defined as blood flow to the brain interrupted by a blockage (clot), or a rupture (tear) in an artery, depriving the brain of oxygen. Strokes caused by blood clots are called ischemic (87 percent); others resulting from bleeding in the brain, or the surrounding area, are termed hemorrhagic.

While everyone is susceptible, San Antonio is on the forefront of research and development for treatment and prevention, health care workers said.

“Pre-2009, things were not good in San Antonio for stroke care. Patients were even being transferred to Austin where treatment was much better than here,” said Dr. Lee Birnbaum, director of the Stroke Center at University Health System and associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at UT Health San Antonio (formerly the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio), “but that’s no longer the case. We are now a world-class center for stroke care.”

According to Birnbaum, University Hospital is one of only three comprehensive stroke centers in Bexar County and is the only American Heart Association/American Stroke Association facility certified by the nonprofit The Joint Commission as a comprehensive stroke center in South Texas. That means the hospital has met the more stringent certification measures demanded by The Joint Commission, which accredits health care operations.

On its website, University Hospital notes it is in an elite group of only three hospitals statewide and slightly more than 100 hospitals across the country to be so recognized by The Joint Commission.

“With that certification, University Hospital is said to excel in all aspects of stroke care – from prevention, to treatment of even the most complex patients, to recovery and rehabilitation, to research into new and better therapies,” Birnbaum said.

In addition, San Antonio MDNews recounted the hospital launched a communitywide education campaign to generate broad public understanding of stroke symptoms and the need to get patients to the hospital as quickly as possible if a stroke is suspected. The campaign uses F.A.S.T., or the major warning signs of stroke, as its focal point – facial droop, arm weakness, slurred speech and time critical.

Coupled with the outreach effort, University Hospital also initiated an internal stroke-education campaign. Every University Health System employee, from clinical staff to administrators, has a card attached to their identification badge listing the F.A.S.T. symptoms and the internal phone number to trigger a stroke alert.

Stroke centers in Bexar County can diagnose the type of stroke, and administer clot-busting drugs if it’s ischemic. Patients with hemorrhagic strokes often need surgery to relieve the brain bleed and can be treated at the comprehensive stroke centers.

The centers include University Hospital, St Luke’s Baptist Hospital and at Methodist Healthcare System.

Stroke risk can be reduced by embracing a healthier lifestyle, including a balanced diet, increased exercise and lowering high blood pressure. On ways to reach these goals, visit www.strokeassociation.org.

Stroke-prevention tips offered by Harvard Health at www.health.harvard.edu include lowering blood pressure, losing weight, exercising more, drinking in moderation, treating atrial fibrillation and diabetes, and quitting smoking.

Corinthia “Cori” Nash, regional stroke program coordinator at Christus Santa Rosa Health System, notes females are in greater danger.

“More women die from stroke and heart attack each year than from all forms of cancer combined,” Nash said. “Women are more likely to die of stroke and heart attack than men. Pregnant women have a higher risk for stroke as do women after menopause.”

The CDC reports African-Americans and Hispanics also are more prone to strokes than Anglos.

High blood pressure is by far the leading cause, but age also plays a factor.

The American Stroke Association warns people who are physically inactive, eat too much salt and overindulge with alcohol are at higher risk for elevated blood pressure.

Although rare, youngsters can also have strokes.

“Two in 100,000 children suffer a stroke every year, but children with sickle cell anemia have a much greater chance of stroke,” said Dr. Gary Bobele, a pediatric neurologist at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

The Internet Stroke Center, www.strokecenter.org, reports an estimated 17 percent of kids under 14 with sickle cell disease have silent strokes; the rate increases to 23 percent by 18. Silent strokes occur without obvious outward symptoms such as movement difficulties.

Getting victims help rapidly is critical, doctors said.

“For every 15 minutes you delay stroke care, four out of 1,000 people will die,” said Dr. Adam Blanchette, a neurologist and stroke and telemedicine director for Methodist Healthcare System. “Therefore, if you think you are having a stroke, call 911. You want to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.”

With modern medical advancements, often strokes don’t translate to dying.

“Stroke used to be considered a death sentence,” said Dr. Mark Ogden, regional stroke program medical director for Christus Santa Rosa, “but no longer. There is more hope today.”

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