When a person is having a stroke, every second counts. And what you do in those critical moments can potentially help save someone’s life.
Jean D. Luciano, CRNP, Stroke Team Co-Director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Penn Medicine and a nurse practitioner at the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center, spells out important do’s and don’ts, so you can be ready to give your loved one the best chance of surviving a stroke.
A stroke is often described as a “brain attack.” Part of the brain is robbed of the oxygen and blood supply it needs to function, because a blood vessel to part of the brain either has a clot or bursts.
The longer a stroke goes untreated, the more brain damage can occur. But there are treatments that can be given if a person reaches the hospital in time.
3 Things to Do When Someone Is Having a Stroke
1. Call 911 immediately
If you do nothing else, act quickly to call 911.
“The hardest thing you have to do is recognize symptoms of a stroke,” Jean explains. “If you do observe any symptoms, you should call 911 immediately. You should also immediately tell the 911 dispatcher, ‘I think I’m having a stroke’ or ‘I think my loved one is.’”
Not sure what the symptoms of a stroke are? Give someone you think is having a stroke this FAST testfrom the National Stroke Association.
2. Note the time you first see symptoms
A clot-busting medication called tPA, or tissue plasminogen activator, can be given to someone if they’re having a stroke, potentially reversing or stopping symptoms from developing. But it has to be given within 4.5 hours of the start of symptoms, Jean says.
Patients may also be candidates for more advanced therapies, such as endovascular treatments, at Penn Medicine. Endovascular treatments can involve surgically removing a clot that caused a stroke, or fixing an aneurysm—which is a swollen blood vessel that bursts and causes pressure in the brain. Endovascular treatments for ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke, must be administered within 24 hours of symptom onset, and earlier treatment improves outcome so time is critically important.
“If a witness sees someone having a stroke, it would be helpful if they look at what time the symptoms started,” she says. “That way, the emergency staff can make a more informed decision about treatment options.”
3. Perform CPR, if necessary
Most stroke patients don’t require CPR, Jean notes. But if your friend or spouse is unconscious when you find her, check her pulse and breathing. If you find none, call 911 and start CPR while you’re waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
You can also ask the 911 dispatcher to walk you through how to perform CPR, which consists of repeated, steady chest compressions, according to the American Heart Association
3 Things Not to Do When Someone Is Having a Stroke
1. Let that person go to sleep or talk you out of calling 911
Stroke survivors often complain of suddenly feeling very sleepy when a stroke first happens.
“A lot of patients come in and say they went to sleep for a few hours before they came to the hospital because they were tired,” Jean notes.
But time is of the essence. “The medication we can give a stroke survivor is time-sensitive,” she adds. “They should not go to sleep, and they should not call their primary care doctor 2 days from now. Instead, they should just go immediately to the emergency room.”
And no matter how much someone might try to talk you out of taking them to the hospital, don’t let them, says Jean.