Gary Hanson spent Father’s Day at his son’s home in Pennsylvania. It was the second time he had to spend the holiday without his own father.
Hanson, of Egg Harbor Township, and his family buried his father, Alfred, in October 2015 — and a day later, he had a stroke, at age 64. The same thing had led to Alfred’s death less than two weeks earlier.
The difference for Gary Hanson was doctors were able to get to his clot quickly and remove it, leading to a successful recovery.
Stroke, or a lack of blood supply in the brain, is the fifth leading U.S. cause of death and a leading cause of long-term disability. Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show South Jersey counties lead the state in stroke hospitalizations, deaths and preventable deaths.
Experts say along with knowing the symptoms of stroke — which include imbalance, vision problems, facial drooping or numbness, limb weakness and speech problems — patients who successfully recover have kept one thing in mind: time.
“I woke up around 3 a.m. He was thrashing around in bed, and I knew something was wrong,” said Gary’s wife, Kathy. “The emergency responders came and we wanted to go straight to AtlantiCare City (Campus). We got there, he was repeating things and couldn’t move.”
On June 15, the Hansons met with Dr. Jorge Eller, a Thomas Jefferson University cerebrovascular and endovascular neurosurgeon, for an annual exam. Afterward, they reunited with other physicians, emergency responders and professionals who cared for Hanson after his stroke.
Eller, who treated Hanson in 2015, said people are more likely to attribute symptoms to other, less serious conditions, often choosing to get a night’s rest and reassess in the morning.
But that delay in care for someone having a stroke, like Hanson, could have be deadly.
“It’s important to note that they (Hansons) reacted so quickly and had the foresight to call 911 instead of sleeping through the night,” he said. “It’s natural instinct to do the latter, but think twice about that.”
Eller said in many stroke cases, doctors can remove clots and nearly fully restore a person’s function, if they get to them quickly. Hanson said he bounced back quickly, experiencing only some mild weakness in his right side.
Hanson, an AtlantiCare board member, said he and his wife learned calling for help immediately and going straight to a specialized stroke center was key. In his father’s case, the family did not know how much time had passed before they found Alfred in his Northfield home, unresponsive.
Emergency responders took Alfred to a community hospital first, before transferring to AtlantiCare’s Atlantic City Campus, which recently became a Comprehensive Stroke Center — the highest designation given by the national Joint Commission to only a few hospitals in the state with extensive stroke care capabilities.
Too much time had passed and the stroke’s damage was enough to play a role in Alfred’s death, experts said.
It would have been easy for Kathy Hanson to dismiss the stroke symptoms, she said, as the chances of her husband suffering such as thing seemed minimal, but she instead made the connection more quickly.
Hanson and Kathy, who share time between Egg Harbor Township and their home in Naples, Florida, now make sure family and friends know their story and are aware of stroke symptoms and care.
On Thursday, they shook hands with and hugged EMTs and paramedics from the Egg Harbor Township and AtlantiCare emergency squads — who can relay information on someone’s stroke quickly and more directly to nurses and doctors than can a patient using other transportation to go to the hospital.
Karen Shields, an Egg Harbor Township EMT, retired last week after responding to emergencies for 31 years. In all that time, she had been reunited with a patient just once. After hugging and talking with the family, she said there was nothing better than finding out Hanson was OK.
“Their story is incredible, especially with what happened to his father,” Shields said. “But this is perfect. I’m so happy to see that he’s OK, because after you transport a patient, you try and find out what happens to them, so this is great.”