Seventy-three-year-old Gerald Sandlin was sitting up and smiling in a hospital bed in Memphis Thursday, happy to be alive just two days after he suffered a stroke on a Delta flight bound for Atlanta.
Fast action by the staff of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Mobile Stroke Unit and the physicians at Methodist University Hospital’s Comprehensive Stroke Center saved the Vinemont, Alabama, man’s life, after the plane made an emergency landing at Memphis International Airport around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
That scenario is a perfect illustration of why UTHSC launched the Mobile Stroke Unit in March 2016.
The $1.1 million, 14-ton van is a stroke center on wheels designed to reduce time to treatment and improve odds of recovery from stroke, the fifth leading cause of death and Number 1 cause of permanent disability in adults in the United States.
It is equipped with a hospital-quality CT scanner with advanced imaging capabilities that allow brain imaging and imaging of the individual blood vessels in the brain.
It was the first in the world with this type of state-of-the-art scanning capability, which allows for diagnosis and initial treatment with the clot-busting drug, tissue plasminogen activator, tPA, in the field, instead of waiting to begin treatment at the hospital.
“If he went anywhere else, treatment would have been delayed a couple of hours,” said Andrei Alexandrov, MD, chair of the Neurology Department at UTHSC and medical director of the Mobile Stroke Unit team. “He probably would have died because of the nature of the stroke.”
Dr. Alexandrov’s mantra is “time is brain.” The longer it takes to treat a stroke, the more blood vessels die from lack of blood flow, and the worse the outcome. That is why it is crucial to receive medical treatment as soon as possible to achieve the best result.
The UT Mobile Stroke Unit makes it possible to start treatment sooner because patients are diagnosed, prepped, and ready to go immediately to the catheterization laboratory, once it arrives at the hospital emergency department.
Sandlin said, during the flight home from a trip to see family in Salt Lake City, Utah, he suddenly started feeling funny. His wife, Barbara, who had had a stroke several years earlier, knew the signs. Two physicians on board, a cardiologist and a urologist, felt the symptoms indicated a stroke.
The pilot decided to land in Memphis, but had no idea that the UT Mobile Stroke Unit was in operation. “He made the right decision,” Dr. Alexandrov said. The unit was called to the airport and waiting on the tarmac when the plane landed.
Sandlin was taken to the Mobile Stroke Unit, and within 1 minute, he was undergoing a CT-angiography scan that clearly showed a basilar artery thrombosis, the most deadly stroke. The clot-busting tPA was administered, and the patient was taken to Methodist University Hospital, where the clot was successfully removed by Adam Arthur, MD, a neurosurgeon and UTHSC professor.
Anne Alexandrov, PhD, RN, CCRN, ANVP-BC, NVRN-BC, FAAN, the UT Mobile Stroke Unit chief nurse practitioner and professor in the College of Nursing, said the unit has been called to respond to possible strokes four to five times a day, since it went into operation in the Memphis area, and can respond and treat on average 72 minutes faster than traditional hospital response.
“I’m just tickled to be here,” Sandlin, a former Vietnam veteran said. Thanks to the fast treatment, he has none of the residual problems that can result from stroke. “I feel good,” he said, and demonstrated that fact by walking down the hospital corridor. He is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Friday.