Stroke treatment saving more arteries, according to new study

Mark Corbitt received urgent thrombolysis treatment after he had a stroke at 30,000ft.
CAMERON BURNELL/ FAIRFAX NZ

Mark Corbitt received urgent thrombolysis treatment after he had a stroke at 30,000ft.

Mark Corbitt wonders whether he might be dead if he hadn't been "thrombolised". 

The healthy, 51-year-old manager was 30,000ft above land last year, on a flight between Sydney and Wellington, when he realised he was having a stroke. 

"My cognitive function was unaffected, I totally knew what was happening, but I couldn't move.

"Believe me, that was scary."

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When the plane landed, Corbitt was rushed to hospital and given thrombolysis – a treatment designed to bust blood clots.

"Did it save me? I honestly can't answer that. I had 14 or so strokes after that, which were probably due to other factors.

"But I think it helped. The blocked artery the doctor showed me was pretty scary."

A national stocktake on thrombolysis has revealed more stroke sufferers are receiving the treatment, but experts say there's plenty of room to improve.

In the six months to June 30, 2015, 179 patients around the country received thrombolysis – or 6.4 per cent of stroke sufferers.

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Small figures, perhaps, but double those of previous years. In 2009, just 3 per cent of all stroke sufferers received the potentially life-saving therapy.

"We should probably be going up to about 20 per cent," Alan Barber, professor of neurology at Auckland University, said.

The treatment was effective in only about one-third of patients, he said, but it could spell the difference between life, death, or permanent disability.

People needed to understand that time was critical to the treatment working.

"The big ones are obvious. But for the medium or small ones, a lot of people will ring their doctor and make an appointment for the next day. They'll think they've slept on their arm funny."

When a stroke happens, the odds of being able to walk afterwards drop every 15 minutes that treatment is delayed. 

Three hours from onset is the optimum window for treatment, and after 4½ hours, the treatment won't work at all.

Last month, the Ministry of Health, Stroke Foundation, and Health Promotion Agency launched a campaign promoting FAST, designed to help people remember the main three signs of stroke: face, arms, speech. The T stands for time.

"The idea is for more people to identify signs of stroke and get them to hospital quickly," Stroke Foundation acting chief executive Don Scandrett said.

"Thrombolysis can make a huge difference to the outcome of a person who has had a stroke."

More than 2500 Kiwis die from strokes each year, making it our third largest killer, after heart disease and cancer.

There are an estimated 60,000 stroke survivors in New Zealand, and about 15 per cent of them are institutionalised.

SPOT A STROKE

When judging whether someone is having a stroke, remember the acronym FAST.

Face: Is their face drooping on one side? Can they smile?
Arm: Is one arm weak? Can they raise both arms?
Speech: Is their speech jumbled or slurred? Can they speak at all?
Time: Time is critical. Call 111.

THROMBOLYSIS: WHAT IS IT?

* Also known as "clot-busting", it is a therapy used to dissolve dangerous clots in blood vessels, improve blood flow, and prevent damage to tissues and organs.

* Thrombolysis is effective only in ischemic strokes, which happen when an artery in the brain becomes blocked. Ischemic strokes make up about 80 per cent of all stroke cases.

* About one-third of thrombolysis treatments are effective.

 - Stuff

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