Mother and Grandmother from Clifford, New Jersey, Reacts Quickly to Signs of Stroke

June 18, 2021

It was an early August morning when Kathleen Fernicola, 64, of Clifford, New Jersey, got up to start her normal daily routine. She entered her bathroom and suddenly felt something strange in her right leg. “It felt like ice-cold going from my toes, up my leg, as if someone was running an ice cube up my leg,” she says. “I went to take a step, and as soon as I stepped down on my right foot, I just went down on the floor.”

That’s when her day became anything but normal.

As Kathleen fell, she slammed the bathroom door and blocked it closed. “My leg was just dead. I tried to pick it up with my hands, and it weighed a ton,” she says. It took Kathleen half an hour to maneuver her body away from the door so her daughter, Jen, could hear her cries for help.

After Jen helped her mom up, they knew they had to call 911. Kathleen wasn’t quite sure what to think, but she knew it must be serious. “I said to Jen, ‘I think this might be a stroke.’”

Overcoming Past Trauma

Kathleen was nervous about what was happening to her—mostly because she mistrusted hospitals. A year and a half earlier, in February 2019, Kathleen lost her husband unexpectantly after he underwent open heart surgery.

“It was a lot of trauma,” she says. “I felt like my concerns and my questions were just dismissed. It was very stressful.”

So when she found herself on the way to Bayshore Medical Center, she was skeptical, even though it was part of a different hospital system than where her husband had gone. “I was angry about having to deal with it again. It was, ‘Take me to the hospital, do what you got to do and send me home,’” she says.

But from the moment she arrived, that all went away. “I was unbelievably surprised when we got to the hospital. Everything was so different from that last experience,” she says. “The team, the doctors, the nurses and whoever you came across, they were all extremely supportive,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be OK.’”

Acting Fast

By the time Kathleen got to the hospital, another symptom had emerged. “My speech went downhill fast,” she says. “I could think about what I was trying to say, but I had no idea where these words came from. I was saying ‘hamburger’ for ‘handbag.’ Things were coming out crazy.”

The care team at Bayshore knew they had to act quickly. Neurologist Srinivas Pavuluri, M.D., says Kathleen’s symptoms were not unusual for a stroke. “Any sudden onset of speech or vision impairment, sudden onset of weakness or numbness on one side, or dizziness, vertigo or lightheadedness—these are all symptoms you have to pay attention to,” he says.

The “gold-standard” treatment for stroke, an IV injection of recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), is a clot-busting drug that can be highly successful in helping patients with stroke recover. But it must be administered within four and a half hours of symptom onset.

Dr. Pavuluri says Kathleen’s quick action in getting to the hospital was vital to her candidacy for tPA. “With tPA, time is of the essence. Every minute counts,” he says. “Even though it’s a four and half hour window, if you give it earlier, there are fewer complications. If you give it late, there’s more risk of causing bleeding. The sooner the better.”

Making Progress

Kathleen woke up in the hospital the next morning and knew she had a lot of work to do. “I was in the hospital bed, and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to move this foot. I’m going to move a toe. I’m going to move something.’ I pulled the sheet off, and I looked down at my foot, and I could see my toe moving,” she says. “I was like, OK, we got this.”

Dr. Pavuluri explains: “Initially, her right leg was paralyzed. It got dramatically better after the tPA and continued to get better during the short while she was in the hospital.”

Still, what was most important to Kathleen was regaining her speech. “It was difficult to accept that was happening. I didn’t even want to talk,” she says. “It’s just so strange that certain things don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”

Therapists and nurses worked with her all hours of the day and night, showing her pictures until the words came back. “I think the last one was ‘baseball player.’ That was the hardest one for some reason,” Kathleen laughs. 

Recovering at Home

Kathleen went home eight days later and received home care from Hackensack Meridian Health, including visiting nurses, occupational therapists and physical therapists, to continue her care. Now, she’s back to remotely working her full-time job with a staffing company. She uses a walker to get around and is working to get her strength back, although she is still unable to drive. She hopes to be able to swim in her pool with her granddaughter this summer.

As for her hospital trauma, it’s been replaced with a great experience. “[The team at Bayshore] were extremely caring. They would smile, they would touch your hand, they would pull your gown closed—and that really went a long way,” she says. “The two main takeaways from this whole experience are how wonderful everything was at the hospital, and that when you have something going on, you have to get it checked out as soon as possible. Get to the hospital. They can help.”

Dr. Pavuluri couldn’t agree more. “Don’t wait to speak to your primary care doctor,” he says. “Many people make that mistake. Just call the ambulance and get to the hospital fast.”

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