By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATIONS NEWS
When his wife’s snoring woke him one night in July 2014, Kurt Hinrichs did what he’d done countless other times: reach for his glasses and move to the couch in the living room.
But instead of standing, he collapsed to the floor and was unable to right himself.
His wife, Alice, woke and helped him up to the bed. As he tried to put on his glasses, he discovered his right arm and hand didn’t respond. He couldn’t focus his eyes or speak.
Alice switched the light on and Hinrichs thought he was in the middle of a bad dream. She then said, “Unless you respond, I’m calling 911.’”
Paramedics arrived and determined the 53-year-old was having a stroke and alerted the nearest stroke center about 20 minutes away in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I finally realized it must be happening when they rolled the gurney into my bedroom,” Hinrichs said.
Testing revealed a large clot blocking blood flow to the left side of Hinrichs’ brain, and doctors administered a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator. When the tPA didn’t seem to be having an effect, the doctors asked the couple for permission to try an approach that wasn’t in wide use then: a stent retriever.
Hinrichs was sedated and a medical team threaded a catheter from his groin to his brain and used a stent retriever to remove the clot.
“They were amazed at how large it was because it was the width of a nickel,” Hinrichs said.
Within moments of the clot’s removal, Hinrichs had movement in his right arm and leg, a hopeful sign he would regain use of his limbs.
When he woke he tried to talk. Although his speech came out as garbled syllables, his medical team noted they weren’t slurred, signaling he’d have a good chance to recover his speech. He was also able to replace the cap on a marker, showing good hand-eye coordination.
For the next 48 hours, a team of nurses put Hinrichs through a series of coordination tests to ensure there were no indications of another stroke. He passed them all with flying colors.
Within 36 hours of his stroke, Hinrichs had few remaining signs that it had happened.
For the next few days, Hinrichs underwent more testing as doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to identify a trigger. One hypothesis is that an abnormal heart flutter may be to blame, but none has been recorded in the heart monitor doctors implanted following Hinrichs’ stroke.
Hinrichs’ stroke was cryptogenic, or one in which a cause cannot be determined. Such strokes account for about a third of ischemic strokes, which are the most common type that people experience.
Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.
Today, Hinrichs, 54, takes a daily chewable aspirin to thin his blood and cholesterol-lowering medication as preventative measures, but requires no other care. He also maintains a healthy diet and exercises regularly.
The only real change is that he seems to perspire more during physical activity, he said.
Following his recovery, Hinrichs worked to revisit with all of his care providers, especially the paramedic team that quickly recognized his symptoms and got him to a stroke center that could provide the life-saving treatment.
Hinrichs, his wife and three children visited the paramedic crew three weeks after his stroke, and said that one crewmember told him he had doubted that he would fully recover.
“I really credit them for getting me to the right place,” he said.
In June 2015, Hinrichs was able to thank the paramedic crew publicly in a ceremony with the local city council, where he also had a chance to meet the crew’s families.
He also shared his story at the Cryptogenic Stroke Public Health Conference in Washington, D.C., part of his ongoing effort to push for more research and development of new technology used in stroke treatments. He is scheduled to attend the International Stroke Conference in Los Angeles this month.
“I want to encourage health professionals to continue to do what they can do, because it really makes a difference,” he said, adding that although a cause may not always be identified in stroke, “what they have done so far has resulted with me and others being saved from death or permanent disability.”