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Val Valencic: Speaking out about stroke

Milan is Val Valencic’s given name, but he likes to go by Val. It’s short, easy to remember, and easy to say. Except after the stroke he suffered last year. He and his wife, Bev, feared he would never talk again. Worse, they feared the stroke would lead the 83-year-old retired engineer into a fatal downward spiral, as they had seen with family and friends too many times before.

Val Stroke
Val (left) and Bev Valencic on the steps of their home. When Val had a serious stroke, Bev called 911 immediately and EMS rushed him to St. Mary’s. Today he is back to normal.

But fast treatment at St. Mary’s restored his speech and returned him to active living. Now he plays golf five days a week with friends at Lane Creek Golf Club, tends more than 330 shrubs in his manicured yard, and builds model airplanes when the weather turns bad.

“St. Mary’s saved my life,” he states.

This is his story.

Val’s work with Westinghouse – he was a facilities engineer – brought he and his family to Athens from Indiana. When the plant was sold 25 years ago, he retired at the age of 58. Life was good.

Sept. 16, 2015, started like a normal day. Bev came downstairs to make coffee. A few minutes later, Val came down to make eggs. He remembers reaching into a cupboard for a dish. Suddenly, something went terribly wrong. The dish shattered on the floor.

Bev was in another room when she heard the crash. Then she heard Val making very unusual noises. Worried, she rushed into the kitchen. He was trying to say something, but no words were coming out, just garbled sounds.

“I couldn’t understand him,” Bev says. “So I gave him a pad and pencil and said, ‘Write it down.’ He tried, but it was just scribbling. That’s when I saw that one side of his mouth was just hanging down. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re having a stroke,’ and called 911.”

National EMS rushed him to St. Mary’s, Northeast Georgia’s first Joint Commission certified advanced primary stroke center and a six-time recipient of the American Heart Association/Stroke Association Gold-Plus Award for stroke care.

“I don’t remember much about it,” Val says. “I remember that they got me to St. Mary’s in time that I could have the clot-buster drug. There was a lot of testing before they could give me the shot. I had to qualify, and it had to be less than three hours from when the stroke started. Once all the testing was done, they said I qualified and asked my wife if it was OK to give me the shot. She said, ‘He’s no good this way; do it.'”

“Many ischemic strokes can be helped by a drug called Alteplase,” says Alan Morgan, MD, Val’s neurohospitalist at St. Mary’s. “Alteplase can help dissolve the blood clots that cause an ischemic stroke, but breaking up the clot helps only if there are brain cells that still can be saved, so time is of the essence. Also, Alteplase carries a risk of bleeding if blood vessels are damaged, so we must complete a CT scan and other diagnostics before we can administer it. That’s why it’s so important to get to the hospital fast.” In a stroke, time is brain. Over many years, cholesterol builds up inside the wall of an artery to form a plaque. The plaque and the inflammation it causes narrow the artery, like squeezing a straw almost shut. Eventually, a blood clot gets stuck in the narrow spot. Immediately, brain cells downstream from the blockage start to die – at a rate of 2 million cells per minute. Hundreds of millions of cells may be in danger.

Val’s stroke mainly affected the part of his brain that controls speaking. Had it been in a different part of his brain, he might have been paralyzed on one or both sides of his body, or lost the ability to walk, see, or use his hands.

“It was awful. I couldn’t call out for help. I couldn’t even have dialed the phone,” Val says.

But he had help.

Thanks to St. Mary’s, Val’s stroke did not stop him from the doing the things he loves, include building highly detailed model airplanes, a hobby he enjoys when the weather is too rough for golf or yard work.

Val model plane stroke

Bev noted the time his symptoms started and called 911 immediately. EMS got him to St. Mary’s fast. And just 57 minutes after being brought to St. Mary’s – the national goal is 60 – Val received Alteplase.

Within a few hours, he had recovered enough to ask to see Dr. Morgan. As his recovery progressed, his doctors ordered tests to search for the source of the blood clot that caused his stroke. They found debris tangled around a valve on the right side of his heart – a likely suspect. They also found he has a patent foramen ovale (PFO) – a hole between the chambers of the heart that everyone is born with but which usually seals itself in childhood.

Meanwhile, his family worried. Val and Bev had been at St. Mary’s before – he had a hip replacement about four years ago – and had confidence in the doctors and staff. Even so, Bev recalls that she couldn’t sleep that first night after his stroke. All night, she wrestled with worry that her beloved husband of 61 years might suffer permanent disability and premature death.

“The next morning, I heard him talking as I walked to his room in the hospital and I was so relieved,” she says. “He’s been talking ever since!” Just three days after being admitted, Val went home with no noticeable stroke deficits. He now takes a blood thinner – warfarin – and cardiologist L. Steven Lowman, MD, of Oconee Heart and Vascular Center helps keep an eye on his heart health. Otherwise, his life has returned to normal.

“I was so impressed by St. Mary’s, I wrote a letter to the CEO,” Bev adds. “The doctors, the nurses; it was a wonderful experience. He’s doing great!”