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Living the Good Life

St. Mary’s stops Gene Austin’s stroke in its tracks – twice

Gene Austin standingGene Austin was living the good life. A retired veteran with 21 years of service in the U.S. Army, he was enjoying a second career as the University of Georgia’s director of operations and maintenance, spending time with family, working in his woodshop, gardening – and, he admits, smoking too many cigarettes.

One day in 2003, he suddenly felt weak on the left side of his body. His speech became slurred. Eileen, his wife of 46 years, was afraid she knew what was happening. She called an ambulance. Gene was rushed to St. Mary’s, where doctors confirmed her worst fears.

Gene was having a stroke.

Stroke is a potentially deadly condition in which blood flow to portions of the brain is restricted. Results can include partial or complete paralysis, blindness in one or both eyes, trouble speaking or swallowing, or worse. Nationally, stroke is the number 1 cause of disability in adults, and the number 4 cause of death.

The good news for Gene was that the FDA had recently approved a medicine that can stop certain strokes in their tracks: the clot-busting drug tPA – tissue plasminogen activator. St. Mary’s in 2003 was on the leading edge of community hospitals beginning to use tPA against stroke.

The moment Gene arrived at St. Mary’s, the staff set to work diagnosing the cause of his symptoms. The sooner treatment with tPA begins, the more brain tissue can be saved. However, tPA cannot be given to patients who have internal bleeding, so fast, high-tech testing is vital. In 2003, St. Mary’s had just restructured its procedures to provide this crucial testing quickly.

CT imaging showed no bleeding in Gene’s brain. Lab results looked good. Because of Eileen’s fast action, doctors knew exactly when symptoms had begun and that he was still in the three-hour window during which tPA is most effective. Gene became one of St. Mary’s first tPA patients.

“It worked,” he says. “The tPA brought me back around within a few hours.”

And when he says it “brought him back”, he means nearly all the way back. He recovered so much function that it was nearly impossible to tell he had ever had a stroke. His doctors and nurses described it as miraculous.

“I stayed in the hospital about three days to recover and get tests done,” he says. “They wanted to be sure it was safe to send me home.” An MRI was done to assess the stroke’s impact on his brain. It showed little damage. An EKG assessed the health of his heart. It revealed no signs of cardiac problems. An ultrasound of his carotid arteries found no significant blockages or narrowing.

Getting Back to life

gene austin
Stroke survivor Gene Austin works out at Oconee Veterans Park. Exercise is helping him regain full function not only from two strokes but from a recent knee replacement as well.

Just a few days after a stroke that could have left him permanently disabled, Gene walked out of St. Mary’s with no significant deficits, just a doctor’s advice to quit smoking, get more exercise, and stay alert for stroke symptoms––once you’ve had a stroke, you’re always at heightened risk for another.

Gene gave up smoking and took strides to exercise more. He started riding a stationary bicycle and lost about 30 pounds. He also added strength training, especially for his legs, because his knees were beginning to feel their age.

Things went great after that. He worked another four years at UGA and then retired, happy to devote more time to family and woodworking. Then, in July 2013, almost exactly 10 years after his first stroke, he again went weak on his left side.

“This time, I was well aware of what was happening,” he says. “I had the same symptoms that I had during my first stroke and we called an ambulance immediately.”

Under new protocols, EMS personnel alerted St. Mary’s they were on the way, and relayed vital information about Gene’s condition and symptoms. On arrival, he was rushed to CT for scanning. Blood samples were taken while he was prepped. Within minutes, tests showed he once again could receive tPA. Once again, it brought him back nearly to normal. Once again, he was able to go home in a matter of days.

“Overall, nothing has really changed,” he says. “I am thankful to be here and am glad I chose to quit smoking in 2003. If there is one piece of advice I could give, it would be not to smoke.”

Because of the fast, evidence-based care Gene received at St. Mary’s, he is able to continue living the good life. He and Eileen have a daughter, Jenni, son-in -law Billy, and a grandson, Liam, who live locally, so they get to be loving grandparents. Gene enjoys being fully retired and spends the majority of his time working in the garden or his woodshop. He is passionate about building things and says, “My favorite thing I’ve ever built was a corner cabinet for my daughter.”

In fact, Gene’s health is so good that in December 2013 he had elective surgery to replace one of his knees. He chose to return to St. Mary’s for the procedure. Today, you can often find him in the weight room at Oconee Veterans Park, exercising to rebuild the strength in his leg and maximize the range of motion in his new, less painful knee.

“I’m grateful to St. Mary’s,” he says. “The care I got there has allowed me to keep living a full and active life. My strokes were serious. I was in real trouble. St. Mary’s gave me my life back.”

tPA is highly effective for many stroke patients, but it doesn’t work for everyone and patients with bleeding can’t receive it at all. At St. Mary’s, which was certified in 2004 by the Joint Commission as North Georgia’s first Primary Stroke Center, a full continuum of care is available to help stroke patients maximize their quality of life.

  • Emergency care
  • High-speed diagnostics, including ultra-fast 64-slice CT scanning
  • Neuroscience Critical Care and general neuroscience nursing
  • The Center for Rehabilitative Medicine, Athens’ only acute inpatient rehabilitation facility
  • Home Health Care/Hospice Services
  • Outpatient rehabilitation, including physical, occupational and speech-language therapy
  • Preventative care, including St. Mary’s Wellness Center, nutritional counseling and diabetes education
  • Free monthly stroke support group

Remember: stroke is a medical emergency. If symptoms appear, call 911 immediately. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache

Time lost is brain lost.

Originally published Spring, 2014