Bob Sweeney was teaching a high-school sociology class when he suffered a stroke. As numbness seized his left side, he became dizzy and began to slur his words. He grabbed his podium, dragged it until he crashed into a desk, and collapsed.
“I tried to get up and continue teaching,” says Sweeney, 49, who also coaches golf and basketball. “I was trying to stand up and couldn’t do it.”
His students initially thought he was play-acting “because I do that occasionally in my classes just to make a point,” he says. When his students realized after a few moments that something was seriously wrong, they contacted the school office, and paramedics were called.
They rushed Sweeney to a nearby hospital, where a CT scan revealed that a clot in a blood vessel on the right side of his brain had caused the stroke. Doctors intravenously administered a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA. It caused a slight improvement but did not dissolve the clot completely, and doctors decided to transfer Sweeney to Alexian Brothers Medical Center (ABMC) in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
ABMC, like St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill., has earned Joint Commission certification as a primary stroke center. The designation recognizes centers that make exceptional efforts to foster better outcomes for stroke patients.
After arriving at ABMC, Sweeney was taken immediately to the hospital’s interventional neuroradiology and angiography suite, where doctors used an advanced, minimally invasive procedure known as intra-arterial tPA to apply the drug directly to the clot in Sweeney’s brain, successfully eliminating the blockage
“I don’t think we’d be talking to each other right now if they didn’t have that procedure,” says Sweeney, who is married and the father of two children. “It’s amazing, it really is. Thank God it was available to me.”
As a primary stroke center, ABMC is not required to offer interventional neuroradiology and angiography, which expand the window of time for treating stroke successfully to about 12 hours. But the hospital added the 24/7 capability several years ago as part of a major ABHN offensive against stroke. “For acute stroke rescue, that suite is paramount in importance,” says Wende Fedder, Clinical Director of ABHS’s Neuroscience Institute.
The system launched its stroke offensive after an ABHS community health assessment showed that the stroke death rate in suburban Cook County exceeded the national average. Under the long-term initiative, ABHS has developed a comprehensive stroke program that has earned a series of progressively greater Get With The Guidelines®-Stroke Performance Achievement awards from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association since 2006. The awards demonstrate ABHS’s commitment to sustaining quality improvements based on the latest scientific guidelines for stroke treatment. ABHS was the only health system in Illinois to earn the Get With The Guidelines®-Stroke Gold Plus Performance Achievement Award for 2009 and 2010. It is the most prestigious quality award for stroke treatment presented by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association
After undergoing intra-arterial tPA, Sweeney remained hospitalized for about a week before returning home and entering a rehabilitation program. A former high school and collegiate basketball player and a golfer who had remained active as an adult, he recaptured his physical skills fairly quickly. But processing verbal information amid background noise took longer. He also struggled with “left neglect,” or lack of awareness of his left side, a common problem after a stroke affecting the right side of the brain. “I would run into the door jamb on my left side,” he says. “I would put my clothes on backward.”
As frustrating as these struggles were, Sweeney tried to stay upbeat. “I looked at some of the other folks in rehab and thought, `Holy cow, I am the luckiest guy in the world,’ ’’ he says.
After five months of rehabilitation, he returned to teaching part-time with a few months left in the school year. The following fall, he returned full-time to teaching and coaching. As an assistant varsity coach, he helped lead his school’s boys basketball team to a final four appearance in the state tournament. Coming on the heels of his health problems, the experience was “very, very rewarding,” he says.
As he goes about his work and life today, more than three years after his stroke, Sweeney has learned to compensate for some lingering side effects, such as a lack of sensation in his left hand. “I can continue to work on it, to build pathways in my brain,” he says. “It’s not something that’s going to set me back.”
Sweeney has taken the same positive approach back to the golf course, where he’s now shooting in the low 80s, compared with the low 70s before his stroke. “I’m determined to get back to that point,” he says. In the meantime, he adds, “I’m happy to be out there.”
He expresses great appreciation for the care he received at ABMC. “They were very positive, very thorough,” he says. “They gave me the feeling they were truly concerned about me. That was very comforting, very professional.”
He also encourages people who are recovering from a stroke to exercise, eat right, and remember the importance of what he calls “the three Ps” – patience, prayer and positive attitude.
“You can look at things as being really bad, but you can also look at your accomplishments on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “In rehab, from where you’re at in the beginning to where you’re at three weeks later is just amazing, and you don’t realize it right away, but after three weeks, you do. As you’re going through it, you might feel like, `I can’t do this.’ But before you know it, you can do it.”