May is American Stroke Awareness Month, an occasion that USC Verdugo Hills Hospital will use to educate the public about how to treat strokes — and more importantly, how to prevent them.
“People don’t realize that 80% of strokes are preventable,” Dr. Nerses Sanossian said by phone. “And the way to prevent them is by educating and empowering people to make lifestyle changes before a stroke occurs.
“No matter how good we are at treating strokes, a stroke averted is the best way to treat a stroke.”
The key is reducing high blood pressure, said Sanossian, who will expound on that notion at a free public seminar on the topic on Thursday, April 26, at USC-VHH, which is certified by the American Heart Association as a primary stroke center because it has a dedicated program and increased standards for improving outcomes for stroke patients.
High blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the brain and increase the chances of strokes, said Sanossian, who is board certified in neurology, vascular neurology and neurosonology.
“The thing is, people with high blood pressure don’t have symptoms, they don’t seek care,” Sanossian said. “So, because it’s something that’s painless, people don’t recognize they have it and they don’t do anything about it. But if they know high blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke, they can check it at home or have a doctor check it regularly.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “we don’t talk about that until it’s too late, so we’re in the business of treating rather than preventing.”
When it comes to treatment, Sanossian said USC-VHH is an appropriate destination, both for care and recovery.
He encouraged anyone experiencing symptoms of a stroke — face-drooping, arm weakness and speech difficulty among them — to call 911 rather than attempting to drive a patient (or oneself) to a nearby hospital, which might not be best equipped to treat it.
Paramedics all are trained to handle stroke patients, he said, and they know where to bring someone suffering one.
“Time is brain,” he said. “During a typical stroke, you lose 1.9 million neurons every minute. So when an ambulance is rolling in with a stroke patient, the ER doctor stops, they clear out the CAT scan, and wait for the patient to arrive.”
All the tools at a hospital such as USC-VHH — brain scans, IVs at the ready, other therapeutic measures — “those things are only helpful if you activate 911,” Sanossian said.
Sanossian directs the stroke program at USC-VHH, where he and his team of dedicated academic stroke and critical care neurologists also are available 24 hours a day through the Telestroke program, which allows doctors to communicate via telephone and mobile video streaming.
“Most of the time, we do it on the phone,” said Sanossian. But sometimes, you need to take a look. So we have the option of video conferencing software.”
The hospital’s stroke care includes rehabilitation for both speech and physical therapy, Sanossian said.
“We’ve been investing a lot in those services,” he said. “So those stroke patients who have been discharged home can come back and work in a professional gym with licensed physical therapists and speech therapists.
“Our ‘Speak Easy’ class is great; group classes and group activities are a great way to help patients with similar issues, and so we have a stroke support group as well for people with similar experiences to share stories and get support.”
The most supportive piece of advice Sanassian has, of course, is to avoid a stroke in the first place: “My mantra is simple: Prevent, prevent, prevent.”