BILLINGS — For every minute a stroke goes untreated, 1.9 million brain cells are lost, which is why nurses trained to quickly assess possible stroke patients at St. Vincent Healthcare are so crucial.
The group of 10 to 15 neurological care floor nurses are the ones immediately paged when a stroke patient comes into the hospital.
“From the time that pager goes off, I need to act as quickly as I can to make sure this patient has the best outcome,” said clinical supervisor Jessie Jensen on Wednesday.
These nurses specially trained to assess stroke symptoms said their pagers have been going off steadily in the last few years. In 2022, St. Vincent had 280 stroke activations.
A stroke activation doesn't always mean the patient is having a stroke, but the nurses do need to go to wherever the patient is in the hospital to assess them.
“During a week, we probably have an average of 1 to 2 a day,” said nurse Ashley Lachapelle.
Lachapelle and Jensen said there are a number of reasons the hospital has seen an increase in stroke patients over the last few years.
Starting in 2021, the hospital became able to perform thrombectomy procedures, which physically remove the clot using a catheter device. This procedure can be performed within 24 hours of a patient first showing signs of a stroke.
“Before, when we could not do thrombectomy, it was four hours. We could treat or not. Now that we are able to do the thrombectomy, we can treat people within that 24-hour window,” Jensen said.
The second reason for the rise in stroke patients, according to the nurses: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID is a disease that affects the clotting factors of our blood so it can cause clots, and clots lead to strokes," Lachapelle said. "About a year after you have COVID, you’re at a higher risk for stroke no matter what age you are.”
Lachapelle also said the nurses have seen younger people having strokes since the pandemic.
“Now, it’s something that our parents can get. We are seeing 70-year-olds, 60-year-olds, even down to 40- and 50-year-olds coming in with pretty devastating strokes,” Lachapelle said. “It’s so important to be aware... The longer that you wait with these symptoms, the more brain dies, the more deficits you have. the more disabled you may become.”
The nurses are trained to react quickly and know what to do when a possible stroke patient comes in, but they also urge others to know what signs to look for, such as face drooping, arm weakness and speech difficulty.
“For stroke education, we like to teach the public, ‘Be fast’…Do not delay.' We would rather see you and tell you it wasn’t a stroke than have you wait, go to bed and think you’re going to get better,” Jensen said.
Be Fast is an acronym that helps remind people to check someone's Balance, Eyes, Face, Arm, Speech and to not waste any Time.