Fast action led to recovery from stroke for Sandy

Woman, outside, smiling and wearing a green sweater.
Sandy Vold

Time is brain. These three words should be top of mind if we suspect someone might be having a stroke.

Classic signs of a stroke include sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg; difficulty speaking; or trouble seeing in one or both eyes. Because it is hard to know for sure if someone is having a stroke, it’s always best to call 911. Every minute that goes by without action leads to more brain cells dying and damage done. The sooner a stroke patient gets to a hospital, the more likely they will recover.

Fortunately, 78-year-old Sandy Vold of Boscobel, Wisconsin, had a good outcome after her stroke, thanks to her husband’s sense of urgency and the care Sandy received from the UW Health Comprehensive Stroke Center which, in concert with UW Health Med Flight, acted quickly to get her the best care in the shortest possible time.

A retired high school English teacher, Sandy was working in the kitchen one evening in September 2023. Her symptoms were less common than those of a typical stroke patient.

“I’d been having dizzy spells over several months,” Sandy recalls. “That evening, however, the dizziness was so strong that I had to grab the edge of the countertop to hold myself up. My husband Ken immediately called his brother-in-law, who is a retired doctor. I was inclined to wait things out at home, but he told Ken I was probably having a stroke and to get me to the emergency room right away.”

Just before leaving the house, Sandy glanced in the mirror. She saw nothing but a big blur.

“That’s when I knew it was serious,” she says.

Because Sandy arrived at Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital quickly, she was well within the window of time for treatment with a tPA clot-busting drug. Sandy declined the drug because of concerns that she might be at greater risk for bleeding.

Surgical intervention was her only option

Sandy’s only other option was to undergo a more invasive treatment called mechanical thrombectomy, a surgical procedure that carefully “fishes” the clot out of the blocked blood vessel in the brain.

“As the first comprehensive stroke center in Wisconsin and one of just a handful in the state, we can treat any type of stroke, no matter how complex, any time of day or night,” says Dr. Luke Bradbury, a neurologist and director of the UW Health Comprehensive Stroke Program. “Local hospitals often treat more typical stroke patients closer to home, but in cases like Sandy’s, it pays to come to a comprehensive stroke center. Mechanical thrombectomy is a remarkable treatment but can only be done by a small number of neurosurgeons with extensive training.”

Dr. Bradbury took the phone call from the Boscobel hospital that evening before immediately alerting the UW Health neurosurgery team that Sandy would soon be on her way to Madison via UW Health Med Flight. The crew – consisting of an emergency medicine physician, a critical care nurse and a pilot – arrived in Boscobel at 9:34 pm, or 48 minutes after Dr. Bradbury took the call.

The Boscobel care team had Sandy ready to go, so the Med Flight crew remained on the ground for only 10 minutes before departing with Sandy safely on board for the short flight to University Hospital in Madison.

“We didn’t even turn the helicopter off in Boscobel,” says UW Health Med Flight Dr. Ryan Newberry. “It’s a highly coordinated rapid sequence of events that we practice constantly to ensure that not even seconds are wasted.”

Straight from Med Flight to the operating room

While Sandy was being transported, communication flowed between the two hospitals and the Med Flight crew so Sandy could be taken directly to a University Hospital operating room within minutes of arrival.

Dr. David Niemann, one of the first neurosurgeons trained how to perform mechanical thrombectomy, was ready and waiting with his team.

“Sandy’s clot was unusual because it was located deep in the back part of her brain, which controls vision,” says Dr. Niemann. “That explained why she experienced blurriness and lost left-side peripheral vision. Once she was in the operating room, we began the procedure by inserting a small catheter into Sandy’s blood vessels, beginning at the femoral artery in her leg and continuing until we reached the area of the brain containing her clot. We then activated a tiny stent at the end of the catheter to capture the clot, pull it out and restore normal blood flow to the area.”

Understandably, Sandy’s memory of her five days in the hospital is a bit fuzzy, but she recalls playing solitaire on her e-reader a day or two after the surgery.

“Everyone was wonderful,” Sandy says. “The nurses were very prompt and incredibly friendly.”

Five months after her stroke, Sandy feels great. UW Health physicians also pinpointed the likely cause of her stroke – atrial fibrillation (a-fib), an abnormal heart rhythm that considerably increases the risk of stroke.

“Not only did we successfully treat her stroke,” says UW Health neurologist Jamie Elliott, “we also put her on blood-thinning medication to protect her against future strokes.”

Married for 43 years with one adult daughter and three grandchildren, Sandy views her stroke as a sign to take the best possible care of herself.

“I love to quilt and I stay involved with our church,” she says. “I don’t have dizzy spells anymore and my sense of balance is clearly better. I just feel so fortunate for the care I had at my local hospital and in Madison.”

BE-FAST: How to recognize stroke signs and symptoms

Each letter in “BE-FAST” stands for an important stroke sign or symptom. If a person shows even one of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Is there a sudden loss of balance or coordination? Ask the person to walk in a straight line or touch their finger to their nose.

Are there sudden vision changes? Ask if the person has double vision, blurry vision or cannot see out of one eye or both eyes?

Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like, “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?

Is there a sudden onset of a terrible headache?