To Vicki Johnson, December 5, 2017 was just another day. She’d finished work and was heading home to Marysville. Her husband, Mark, would be getting ready for work as a manufacturing manager on the night shift at Boeing. Vicki was running behind, so she phoned him to let him know. Neither saw advanced stroke care in the near future.

Mark didn’t answer—because, for him, it wasn’t just another day.

Mark, a Naval Academy graduate who spent 11 years on active duty, woke to his alarm at 10 a.m., as he always did. But he didn’t feel quite right. “It was mentally tough,” Mark remembers, to perform tasks he’d normally accomplish on autopilot. Like unlocking his phone, for example. “I couldn’t physically do it,” he said.

Mark and Vicki Johnson Advanced stroke care survivor.
Mark and Vicki Johnson

Mark went back to bed and slept.

The phone rang. It was Vicki, on her way home from work. Mark didn’t answer—because he physically couldn’t.

Vicki grew concerned. She phoned their son, Eric, to check on his dad. Eric found him—still in bed—and attempted to engage him in conversation. But his dad struggled to respond with one-word answers.

“When I heard this, I knew something was very wrong,” Vicki said. She knew the signs of stroke – an interruption of blood supply to part of the brain – and she suspected that was happening to Mark. She told their son to call 9-1-1.

An ambulance transported Mark to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where he had an EKG, CT scan, and MRI.

This diagnostic imaging showed a clot restricting blood flow in his brain.

Mark was indeed having a stroke.

By then, he could barely speak and his right side was weak. Staff showed him a laminated page with six objects and asked him to name them. He could only identify one.

When it comes to treating a stroke, “time is brain.”

In other words, the longer blood supply is interrupted, the more permanent the damage.

The first option for treating a stroke is clot-busting medication, if it can be administered within 4.5 hours of the onset of symptoms. Since no one knew when Mark’s symptoms started, the medication to dissolve the clot wasn’t an option.

The second treatment option is thrombectomy, a procedure where a surgeon uses a catheter to mechanically remove the clot. The traditional window of opportunity for thrombectomy is 6 hours after the onset of symptoms. It was possible Mark’s symptoms had persisted longer, so initially Mark’s care team thought thrombectomy wasn’t an option either.

But fortunately for Mark, a recent study indicated the window for a successful thrombectomy could be widened from 6 to 24 hours.

Neurologists at Providence Everett were aware of this new breakthrough research and believed Mark qualified for this emergency procedure.

Currently, Providence Everett is expanding its stroke center to include staff and equipment necessary to perform a thrombectomy. So Mark was transferred to a Providence Everett sister hospital in Seattle to undergo the procedure.

Mark underwent a successful thrombectomy that evening. By morning, he could name all six items on that laminated page. He could talk and even answer trick questions from his sons. He even played a prank on Vicki by pretending he didn’t recognize her.

Mark’s road to recovery has been smooth, but there is still work to be done. His vocabulary is back, but he’s still working on remembering names and multitasking. He and Vicki praise Providence for their fast action to diagnose his stroke and coordinate the best possible treatment.

Providence Everett is hoping to make the journey even smoother for future patients needing a thrombectomy, which Mark says, “restored his life.”

Work is underway to become a Comprehensive Stroke Center so that all stroke patients can receive the highest quality, most cutting-edge treatment possible—here in their own community, with no need to spend precious time transferring to another facility.

Because, as Mark’s case illustrates: the faster, the better. Because time is brain.

Advanced Stroke Care on the Horizon

Neuro Biplane at Providence Everett, funded through donor support
Neuro Biplane at Providence Everett, funded through donor support

Providence Regional Medical Center is currently investing millions of dollars to help advance its Neurosciences and advanced stroke care program for our growing community. This includes building a program that offers around-the-clock specialty neurologists, operating rooms and leading-edge technology like the Neuro Biplane which allows clinicians to remove blood clots, like Mark’s, from the brain with a tiny catheter to restore blood flow.  We are thankful for support that has helped make this advancement possible, and look forward to offering this advanced stroke care that is a comprehensive intervention to our community in the near future.