Father’s day of 2012 started out just like an ordinary day for television journalist Doug McConnell. That meant a walk on Corte Madera Ridge with his dogs. Later, he and his wife had plans for a low-key dinner with their two sons. Doug was getting ready to leave the house when he noticed the dogs’ barking sounded somehow “off.” As he shushed them, his own voice sounded odd too, almost disembodied. Looking down at his left arm, Doug had the strange sensation that it wasn’t part of his body: moving the arm took extra concentration. There was also some numbness along the length of his leg. All are classic stroke symptoms, but Doug rationalized them away. He’d recently gone to the Emergency Department (ED) with similar symptoms from a pinched nerve, and he figured this was more of the same.
On his way to the trail, Doug stopped for coffee at Pete’s, where he dropped his wallet three times in a matter of minutes. Doug’s sudden clumsiness baffled him. His hand was numb as he struggled to pick his credit cards up off the ground. Still in denial, Doug counted on fresh air and nature to work their usual magic. He climbed into the car and headed up Summit Drive. When he gripped the steering wheel, he noticed that the fingers of his left hand were not working right. Nonetheless, he continued up the steep slope of Summit Drive, parked and hiked about a quarter of a mile before stopping to text his son. The dog’s leash slipped out of his hand just as his wallet had, landing in a pile of dry leaves with an eerie crunch. Something was definitely wrong – something more serious than butterfingers, or even a pinched nerve. Doug called his wife and older son to inform them that he felt strange and was heading home.
Despite having his cell phone with him, Doug waited to get home to call the doctor, whose concern was obvious and immediate. “If this is a stroke, you’re already 90 minutes into the 3-hour treatment window! Have your wife drive you to the hospital right now. I’ll call ahead.” When Doug and his wife arrived at the Marin General Hospital Emergency Department, the stroke team was ready and waiting. Dr. John Panagotacos, the on-call neurologist and stroke specialist, ordered a brain MRI; the image left no doubt Doug had suffered a small stroke in the back part of the right side of his brain. Besides the small clot in his brain, Doug was eventually diagnosed with a patent foramen ovale, a tiny hole in the heart that is associated with stroke risk.
Doug often thinks about everything he did wrong that day, ignoring symptom after symptom, getting behind the wheel, and waiting too long to call his doctor. For him, having a Certified Stroke Center a short drive away was “a stroke of good luck.” But Doug is even luckier that he came through the experience with no lasting consequences, despite having spent such a dangerously long time ignoring his symptoms.
A non-smoker who is committed to healthy eating and regular exercise, Doug seems like an unlikely stroke candidate. He is trim, fit and diligent about check-ups. He had noticed that his blood pressure tended to rise above normal when he was active, but he was taking medication to control it. Yet even people who are in the best of shape can’t avoid one inevitable risk: increasing age. Eighty percent of strokes occur after age 50, and stroke risk doubles every decade after age 55. Doug was 67 when he had his stroke.
Like Doug, a large percentage of Marin adults are now in the prime risk category. Knowing what to do if you think you’re having a stroke is critical. The best treatment options take place in a 3-hour window from onset of symptoms. That’s why Marin General Hospital has invested in state-of-the-art stroke care. As the county’s only Certified Primary Stroke Center, the hospital can treat all types of stroke on site. Patients don’t lose precious time being transferred to another facility: They can get all the care they need at Marin General Hospital.
Today, Doug is following his doctor’s recommendation to increase his cholesterol medication and switch to low fat lattes. And he and his dogs are back on their favorite Marin trails, enjoying the view.