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Not Your Usual Stroke

St. Mary’s saves retired veterinarian from major disability

Dr. Kittell and cat. stroke story.Cornel Kittell, veterinary surgeon, husband, father, U.S. Army veteran, and Madison County homesteader, awoke in a panic. It was trash collection day, and if his family’s trash wasn’t at the roadside soon, he would be stuck with the garbage all week.

His dash down the stairs ended with him recovering at St. Mary’s Health Care System from a potentially devastating stroke.

It was Oct. 12, 2017, and as the athletic then-64-year-old sprinted down the stairs, a rushing sound filled his ears. At the bottom, dizziness struck. “Blood pressure spike from sudden exertion,” the medical professional told himself, and grabbed the banister to wait for it to pass.

Instead, it got worse. As the world began spinning around him, he called for his wife, Jan.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” she asked.

“I’ll be OK,” he told her. “Get the trash out.” It’s funny, he comments now, months later, how the mind can become fixated on something trivial in a moment of crisis.

Jan did, and rushed back to him. By the time she arrived, he had fallen to the floor and was vomiting uncontrollably. His adult daughter, Jessica, came to his aid, too. A registered nurse with St. Mary’s Emergency Department, she gave him anti-nausea medicine. It didn’t help. They called 911.

When Madison County Emergency Medical Services arrived, they gave him more powerful anti-nausea medicines. Still no improvement. As he began vomiting blood, they rushed him to St. Mary’s.

“Because of my abnormal symptoms, my daughter, who is an ER nurse and sees stroke all the time, didn’t know I was having a stroke,” Cornel says. “When the EMT guys got here with the ambulance, they didn’t recognize that I was having a stroke. No one knew that I was having a stroke.”

Subtle sign

His symptoms pointed to a problem in his inner ear, but emergency physician Patrick Eagleson, M.D., saw a clue to the real cause. Using a simple eye test, Dr. Eagleson noticed that Cornel had certain twitchy eye movements that might indicate a stroke instead of an inner ear condition. He ordered an emergency CT scan.

The scan showed a stroke cutting off blood flow to part of Cornel’s cerebellum, an area near the back of the brain important for balance, muscle coordination and sensory perception.

“One of the major problems with strokes like mine is that they are frequently misdiagnosed,” Cornel says. “So it was a miracle, a real blessing, that Dr. Eagleson saw enough that he could make that diagnosis. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Dr. Kittell and his family walking. stroke story.

A stroke happens when blood flow to part of the brain is stopped. When blood flow stops, up to 2 million brain cells may die each minute. Usually, as in Cornel’s case, the culprit is a blood clot. When patients get to the hospital fast enough – and when there is no internal bleeding or certain other problems – a drug called Alteplase (tPA) can dissolve the blood clot and restore blood flow.

“You need it in under three hours,” Cornel says. “I think I got mine at two hours and 49 minutes. When you figure that I live out in the country and had to be transported to the hospital, get evaluated, get a CT scan, get a diagnosis, and none of my symptoms looked like a stroke, that’s really good. We got it in time.”

Results came quickly. “In a very short time, my symptoms had just gone away. The world was no longer spinning, the vomiting stopped, and, by that evening, if they would have let me, I could have walked. It was miraculous.”

Back to normal

Cornel spent two days in St. Mary’s Neuroscience Critical Care Unit and another two days in the step-down neurological nursing unit. He went home with almost no ill effects from his brush with disability.

“Because of the unusual symptoms with cerebellar strokes, it’s not until several days later that physicians typically understand what really happened,” he says. “It doesn’t usually cause death, but it does result in permanent dizziness, loss of hearing and other problems. I’ve talked to several other survivors. They lived, but it greatly reduced the quality of their lives.”

Dr. Kittell working at his farm. Stroke StoryCornel’s quality of life depends on being active. For example, every week he performs surgery at the Madison-Oglethorpe Animal Shelter’s spay and neuter clinic. He prepares dogs and cats that have been surrendered or abandoned for their new lives with loving families. It was not something he wanted to give up.

“I was able to go back to doing surgery six days after my stroke. I was a little slow, but able to do it. Today, I can’t say that I have any discernable impact from my stroke. I’m back to 100 percent.”

Here’s something else that makes him happy: His wife, Jan, also is a veterinarian. Years ago, she was part of the team at the California National Primate Research Center that determined tPA was safe for use in humans. She is part of the reason St. Mary’s was able to stop her husband’s stroke.

Today, you might find Cornel at the animal shelter, getting a dog or cat ready for their new lease on life. Or at his family’s homestead, tending sheep, goats, horses, cows, rabbits and chickens. Or riding his bike through the countryside.

And on the Sabbath, you might find him worshipping with his community of faith, praising God for all the blessings of life, especially that a doctor at St. Mary’s saw a tiny eye movement that wasn’t quite right.

Dr. Kittell and his wife. Stroke Story
Cornel and his wife, Jan, pose for a photo in the livestock barn of their Madison County homestead. In a way, Jan saved Cornel from his stroke twice: in October 2017 by calling 911 to have him rushed to St. Mary’s, and in the 1980s by being part of the team that proved the safety of the drug used to dissolve the blood clot that caused his stroke.