Joey Bulfin has long known that the Comprehensive Stroke Center at St. Mary’s Medical Center is one of the state’s finest.
But the hospital’s chief operating officer never thought she’d be one of its patients.
After all, as Bulfin, 56, explains, “I don’t have any of the typical risk factors. I’m healthy, not overweight, don’t smoke or have any heart problems, and exercise regularly.”
In fact, it was at the outset of a workout last month when the unthinkable happened: At 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, she stepped on her gym’s treadmill and recalls “suddenly not feeling right and getting off the treadmill.”
A heavy sensation in her left arm and left leg.
A nurse herself, Bulfin says that when she struggled to call her husband on her cell phone — “Four keypad punches took me more than a minute” — she knew something was “really wrong.”
When Bulfin’s husband arrived five minutes later at the gym, he asked her what she wanted to do.
“At that point, it was so tempting — and would’ve been so easy — to have him just drive me home,” Bulfin explains.
Thankfully, though, her nursing instincts — as well as the stroke-awareness education that all St. Mary’s employees receive — kicked in, prompting her to say: “You need to take me to St. Mary’s. I think I’m having a stroke.”
Good thing she did, too, because when a person is having a stroke — that is, a disruption of the blood flow leading to and/or within the brain — every second counts.
According to St. Mary’s chief of neurology, Dr. Ali Malek, a stroke specialist, “During a stroke, 2 million brain cells per minute are being destroyed.”
After Bulfin arrived at St. Mary’s and emergency-room personnel identified her stroke symptoms, a coordinated, multidisciplinary protocol sprang into action.
As one of 21 facilities designated by the Florida Agency of Healthcare Administration as a “Comprehensive Stroke Center,” the folks at St. Mary’s have specialized training in both the acute, and ongoing, management of a stroke.
Rapid testing determined that, along with other criteria, Bulfin’s arterial blockage made her a candidate to immediately receive the “stroke-busting” medication “tissue plasminogen activator” (tPA).
“Being a nurse, I knew about some of the remote — yet potentially fatal — risks in taking tPA,” Bulfin recounts. “However, my husband, doctors and I still decided that the good outweighed the bad. So I started receiving the drug by 7:30 that morning. Almost instantly, I started feeling better.”
The rest of that day, and the next, was devoted to extensive follow-up testing.
“We had to figure out what caused Joey’s stroke,” explains Malek.
Turns out that Bulfin has a dissected artery (which means the inner lining has been damaged) in her neck. The origin of the dissection — whether congenital or caused by some recent activity — will remain forever unknown.
After spending two days in St. Mary’s intensive-care unit (“All of the nurses and doctors were incredible,” Bulfin notes), she was discharged on a Saturday — and returned to an abbreviated work schedule the following Monday: “Half-days at first, and now six-hour days.”
She’s taking multiple medications (including the blood thinner Coumadin) and, in October, will have her dissected artery re-examined by Malek. He says, “If it hasn’t healed on its own, we’ll have to repair it.”
Nevertheless, Bulfin considers herself one of the lucky ones: a stroke victim — and there are some 2,000 daily in the U.S. — whose only lasting complication is, she says, that “I now have less peripheral vision in my left eye than I did before.”
But the message that she, Malek, and everyone associated with St. Mary’s Comprehensive Stroke Center want everyone to remember — especially during May’s National Stroke Awareness Month — is that if it can happen to an otherwise healthy, active person like Bulfin … it can happen to anyone.
SIGNS/SYMPTOMS OF STROKE
May is National Stroke Awareness Month. These are some of the sudden changes in neurological function to look out for:
- Blurred vision, double vision, or partial blindness in one or both eyes
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
- Severe headache or nausea with no known cause
- Weakness or numbness in the arm, leg or face, especially on one side of the body
If you suspect that you or a loved is suffering a stroke, immediately call 9-1-1.