Anna Crown with her grandmother's neurosurgeon Dennis Rivet.

Anna Crown with neurosurgeon Dennis Rivet.

“Hello, my grandma just had a stroke! Can you come get her? And she can’t talk.”

Those were the words a quick-thinking 7-year-old told a 911 operator that may have saved her grandmother’s life.

The dispatcher who took the call presented Anna Crown with a certificate of lifesaving merit during a ceremony in May at the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office. She also got a bracelet with the word “hero” from doctors at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond.

Anna was at her house and her grandmother, Rochelle Payne, was babysitting. Then the 74-year-old collapsed on the kitchen floor.

Payne had suffered two transient ischemic attacks, or “mini-strokes,” prior to the major stroke that hit in late March.

Anna first tried calling her parents, but when she got no answer, she asked, “Mimi, is it OK if I call 911?”

Payne, who could not speak and had weakness on her left side, managed to shake her head yes.

Dispatcher Tammy Ellis answered the call and said that despite the traumatic scene before her, the second-grader “held her composure so well, it was just unreal.”

The Crown’s house sits on roughly five acres in Wake, a small area of Middlesex County about an hour from VCU Medical Center.

“This little girl was so smart and just so in tune as to what was going on with her grandmother,” said Ellis, a 911 communications supervisor. “She was able to give us directions to her house, step-by-step. She was able to provide her mother’s cellphone right off the bat, didn’t have to look it up. It was amazing.”

A sheriff’s deputy and ambulance crew arrived and immediately rushed Payne to a nearby airport, where she was airlifted to VCU Medical Center with a working diagnosis of stroke. The air ambulance personnel notified the emergency department, which activated the Stroke Alert Team that met Payne at the door.

After performing a head CT scan, doctors gave Payne the clot-busting drug tPA, short for tissue plasminogen activator, 23 minutes after she arrived at the hospital. (The national benchmark for tPA is within 60 minutes of hospital arrival.) A neurosurgery team was consulted, and Payne was whisked into surgery less than two hours after getting to the ER. Dennis Rivet, M.D., performed a thrombectomy to remove the clot and restore blood flow in the brain.

“Once they got the clot, I could talk,” said Payne, who walked out of the hospital three days later with only mild speech difficulty and a trace asymmetry on the left side of her face. “It’s amazing that I had no residuals. My left side is a little weak, but other than that, everything works fine.”

Without the proper diagnosis and quick actions of all involved, the retired nurse’s future probably would be quite different.

Warren Felton, M.D., medical director of the VCU Comprehensive Stroke Center, said every minute counts if you think someone is having a stroke. He urged everyone to learn the symptoms of stroke and act quickly.

“This kind of recovery is what we would wish for for all the patients,” Felton said. “We don’t achieve that, but we do know that when we respond as rapidly as possible, it gives patients the best chance for the best outcome. And this outcome was really terrific.”

Payne, who has a family history of stroke and heart disease, said she does all she can to stay healthy. She eats right, goes to the doctor, does not have high blood pressure or diabetes and is not overweight.

“I look like the picture of health,” she said. “You need to watch out for yourself, know your family history and take the bull by the horns.”

She is currently on a blood thinner and is trying to get back to full health with physical, speech and occupational therapy.

Rivet said today’s effective treatments for the “worst of the worst strokes” rely on both the rapid identification and transfer of the patient to a facility where those treatments are available. So what Anna did was remarkable, he said.

“If she didn’t take the action that she did,” Rivet said, “none of the multitude of people who helped [her grandmother] … none of that would have been feasible if that 7-year-old girl doesn’t pick up the telephone.”

Photo courtesy of VCU Health System