Things were different when Debbie Camp started her nursing career in the 1970s — so different that she calls that time the Dark Ages.

“When stroke patients were admitted, we literally put them in the corner in the dark and waited, because the only treatment we had to offer them was rehab support. You can really see how far stroke care has evolved,” said Camp, the stroke EBM manager at Atlanta Medical Center, focusing on quality healthcare improvement. “It was nothing like we’re doing now,”

Camp, who was named the American Heart Association’s healthcare volunteer of the year June 25, works tirelessly to improve the health of cardiovascular patients while mentoring other healthcare professionals. As a founding member of the Georgia Stroke Profession Alliance, a group of healthcare professionals working to improve healthcare delivery across the state, she’s recognized as a leader in developing processes that ensure patients get the best care.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” she said.

Camp points to tPA, a clot-busting drug that was introduced in 1996, as a turning point in stroke care. Given quickly, the drug can greatly improve a patient’s chances of avoiding long term disability. It has helped stroke decrease disability by 30 percent — a statistic that Camp has seen play out in person.

“I’ve had such great experience at the bedside, and seeing the patients that live and walk out of the hospital that would have been severely disabled or even died,” Camp said. “Those are very memorable times. “

She has made it her mission to help spread the word about how to recognize a stroke.

“It’s not like chest pain or a heart attack,” she said. “It’s totally different, and people are more prone to ignore the signs.”

And that’s why Camp is so committed to education. She serves as a Power Ambassador for the American Stroke Association and is involved in training other healthcare professionals. She’s passionate that nurses know that teaching is a huge part of the job.

“If you don’t want to educate patients and families, you really don’t want to be a nurse,” she said.

And Camp passionate about teaching that stroke is 80 percent preventable — if you’re willing to control the risk factors with lifestyle changes.

She spreads that message in all kinds of settings, from the bedside to community events like Strike Out Stroke with the Atlanta Braves in May, where participants learned the warning signs of stroke.

Being able to recognize a stroke and call 9-1-1 right away is critical, she said. And even though the signs aren’t the same as a heart attack, it has to be treated as an emergency. “You’ve got to react quickly,” she said.

As part of her education efforts, Camp reminds people that stroke can affect young people too. Recently every stroke patient at the Atlanta Medical Center was under 55.

“Stroke can happen at any age,” she said. “We’re not just targeting the elderly.”

Camp tells the same story again and again:

“Stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability and the fourth leading cause of death, and we’re seeing an increase in the younger population,” Camp said. “Think about all that life you were supposed to live that is lost forever. Since 80 percent of strokes are preventable, why wouldn’t you take steps to prevent it?”