Celebrating World Stroke Day as a stroke survivor

Jennifer Gardner is celebrated World Stroke Day by being back at work at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Doesn’t sound that exciting? Well, consider that almost exactly a month earlier, the 47-year-old accountant suffered a major stroke while walking up Bascom Hill for a meeting in Bascom Hall.

Hers is a story of good fortune, and nearly everyone (except maybe her) doing the right thing.

The first thing that went right was that Jennifer was at work at all. Normally on Friday, she works from home in rural Rock County. Her husband of less than a year, Don Brokmeier, had plans to go hunting, so she would have been home alone.

“I started feeling dizzy when I was walking up the hill, and when I got to Bascom, I was confused and couldn’t find the room,’’ she remembers. “On the way back down, I had another dizzy spell and had to hang onto a railing. I had drool coming out of one side of my mouth and I tried to talk and couldn’t understand myself.”

She pulled out her smart phone and Googled “stroke symptoms” because she didn’t want to bother anyone to help her. On her way back to her office she called her husband, she said, “He couldn’t understand me at all. So I got scared and hung up the phone.”

When she got back to the law school, she thought she’d go back to her office, shut the door and rest.

Luckily, co-worker Adam Bushcott noticed something seemed off.

“He asked me if I was okay, and I answered him that I was dizzy, so he told me to sit down, to smile and noticed that one side of my face was drooping,’’ she said. “He said, ‘Wait here,’ and went to get Kelly.”

Co-worker Kelly Hallmark had a family member who suffered a stroke recently, and she recognized the symptoms immediately. She instructed Bushcott to dial 911 while trying to keep Jennifer calm by continuing to ask her questions. A third co-worker, Vicky Coulter arrived and tried to keep Jennifer calm by letting her know she was going to be okay. Coulter spoke with UW Police, and went outside to wait for the ambulance.

While they waited, Jennifer wanted to call her husband, so Hallmark got on the phone, and explained that Jennifer was likely having a stroke. He got in the car and raced towards Madison as Jennifer was on her way to University Hospital in an ambulance.

There, she had a brain scan and was evaluated by stroke neurologist Dr. Natalie Wheeler. Jennifer remembers being asked questions and walking into the wall when she tried to walk.

“The scariest thing was that I knew everything that was going on, but I couldn’t communicate,’’ she says.

Dr. Niemann displays a device used to mechanically retrieve clots.

She was given the clot-busting drug tPA, which can only be given within the first three hours after most strokes. A picture of the blood vessels inside her brain showed the blockage that caused her symptoms. Wheeler contacted neurosurgeon Dr. David Niemann, who agreed it might be possible to remove the clot mechanically, using a procedure called 'thrombectomy.'

Niemann threaded a device up the blood vessels from the thigh to the brain, and was successful in grabbing and removing the clot. This restored blood flow to the brain and saved Jennifer’s brain cells.

Jennifer figures she had the stroke about 1:15 p.m. and was at the hospital before 2 p.m. By late afternoon, she was sitting up in bed and talking normally.

Her husband, Don, served with the Whitewater Fire Department for many years, and knows how fortunate she is.

“I’ve transported many people over the years who were having strokes, and it usually doesn’t turn out this good.”

Torrie Wepfer, NP, who took care of Jennifer in the hospital and saw her last week in the outpatient clinic, attributes her strong recovery to getting to the hospital in time.

"She got here in ‘the golden hour,’ " Wepfer says. “As we say in stroke, time equals brain cells.”

And Jennifer’s advice to others?

“Don’t Google it,’’ she says. “Just call 911.”