David Christy had a massive stroke, and yet he loves to talk about how lucky he is.

The 74-year-old retiree was headed to his car on April 4, 2023, after playing a poolside gig at his Wilmington, North Carolina, Del Webb community with the community band, the WebbTones, when he suddenly lost his ability to stand. “I had no strength on the left side of body,” he said. “I had to catch myself.”

But here’s where luck came in. Christy, a harmonica player and artist who’s painted full-time for 20 years, was the beneficiary of what he called “a series of amazing happenings.” First up: A friend of his was running late, so he was still on-site at the moment Christy needed help.

“A good friend – a deputy sheriff – walked by me and noticed something was wrong,” he said. “He was supposed to have left 30 minutes prior but kept getting sidetracked. He said ‘hi,' and when I didn’t respond, he walked back to where I was and saw me struggling. I remember him saying, ‘David, I’ve got you. I’ve got you.’”

The next thing he recalls is waking up in the ICU and seeing his wife, Jan, there. That’s when he learned a blocked blood vessel in his brain led to a stroke.

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Another bit of good luck: The paramedics who took him to the hospital had been trained in Advanced Stroke Life Support (ASLS). During ASLS training, paramedics learn to look for signs of stroke and, if they suspect it, notify the hospital ASAP so the stroke team can immediately move into position.

Thanks to a Coverdell grant, Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center trained 379 emergency response team members in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Bladen counties from September 2022 to May 2023. Between May 2023 and May 2024, an additional 134 providers completed the training, and the program extended to Onslow and Scotland counties, as well as Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune, Conway Medical Center and McLeod Healthcare.

Dr. Jeffrey Beecher, a cerebrovascular neurosurgeon, calls Wilmington-area EMTs among the best he’s ever encountered. “I’ve lived in and worked with EMTs in the Long Island/Manhattan area; in Dallas, Texas; and Buffalo, and I’d put Wilmington paramedics up against any of them,” he said. “They are a cornerstone of our operation. They’re the ones out on the front lines making these vital determinations when every second counts.”

Stroke care close to home

Christy also benefited from being taken directly to the new Novant Health Neurosciences Institute - New Hanover. The five-story, 108,000-square-foot “hospital within a hospital” offers specially trained doctors, advanced technology and leading-edge services for stroke, brain tumor, spinal injuries and more.

“We have the best imaging and the best technology, which helps us provide better care,” Beecher said. “If there’s something we’re concerned about, we can see it faster and with better clarity now. Our processes are lean, efficient and reliable. We’re in the 90th percentile of all stroke centers in the U.S., and we’re one of the very best in North Carolina.”

One key factor: “The patient gets to bypass the ER. Our stroke team is waiting for them. When a patient first arrives, the team initiates several processes simultaneously. Everybody’s moving fast; there’s no time to waste,” Beecher said.

This allows the stroke team to quickly determine if it’s safe to administer Tenecteplase, known as TNK, the drug that can break up the clot.

stroke patient christy 1
David and wife Jan at a community event.

Patients on blood thinners – as Christy was – are not candidates for TNK. (Christy was diagnosed with AFib shortly before his stroke and put on a blood thinner and diuretic.)

Once it was determined Christy needed a thrombectomy (minimally invasive surgery to remove a blood clot from a blood vessel), Beecher got right to work. “We went through a blood vessel in his wrist all the way up to the brain artery on the right, the middle cerebral artery,” he said. “He had a large occlusion that was blocking all the blood flow to the right side of his brain. I removed that clot using an aspiration technique where we basically suction the clot out.”

Because of the fast actions of all involved – and because he had a thrombectomy – Christy “didn’t suffer a massive stroke that probably would have, if not ended his life, left him significantly disabled,” Beecher said.

A thrombectomy, Beecher explained, is used to treat strokes involving large vessels being blocked. When a large vessel is blocked, doctors can see it on an angiogram, target the blockage and remove it. “Mr. Christy had the most common large vessel occlusion, which is of the middle cerebral artery,” Beecher said. “Specifically, it was the first part of the artery before it branches like a tree. All the branches downstream are affected by this blockage. But when it was opened, we stopped that stroke.”

No restrictions

While Christy doesn’t recall much about the blur that was his stroke and the aftermath, he knows he was evaluated and treated with all due speed. “People acted really quickly,” Christy told WECT Spectrum News in June. “And protocols were in place (to allow) the emergency physician and everybody else to do what they needed to do ... It certainly kept me from having a lot of damage.”

He was in the hospital for just a couple of days before he was cleared to go home. Christy didn’t even need physical therapy in the hospital. After being released, he played pickleball and went swimming. The same day.

A few weeks later, he and his wife traveled to Australia to visit their oldest daughter. They walked as much as 6 or 7 miles in a single day while there. Christy had no limitations or restrictions.

His excellent outcome isn’t an outlier, Beecher said: “It’s actually pretty common. Since stroke intervention really came about in 2011 or so, the care just keeps getting better. We see patients all the time who make dramatic recoveries.”

Christy now says he has “no issues from the stroke.” He is physically active, often exercising and playing pickleball. He’s painting again, and without any problems. Murals and portraits of pets and people are what he’s best known for. (Learn more about his art at davidchristy.com.)

“I realize how lucky I am,” he said. “I understand it can take years to get back some of the abilities a stroke can take away. And sometimes, those things never come back. This was really kind of a miracle.”

Would you know what to do?

Every year, nearly 800,000 people have a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Proper training and a fast response – from both emergency crews and anyone who happens to witness the patient having what could be a stroke – can dramatically improve a patient’s outcome.

If you suspect someone may be having a stroke, act fast. In fact, B.E. F.A.S.T. is the acronym that can help you remember what to do in that scenario.

  • Balance: Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination could indicate stroke.
  • Eyesight: So can double vision, blurry vision or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Face: Facial drooping, typically on just one side. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of their face droop?
  • Arms: Sudden numbness or weakness in the arm, face or leg, especially on one side of the body. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward
  • Speech: Slurred speech, inability to speak or difficulty understanding speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
  • Time: Time is critical if experiencing these symptoms. Call 911 immediately.

Note the time when symptoms first appear, and share that information with 911 or the paramedics. It will help health care providers determine the best treatment.

Remember the symptoms, as outlined by the CDC:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech.
  • Sudden trouble seeing out of one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Dr. Jeffrey Beecher’s message: “Don’t ignore the signs.”

“I’ll meet patients who say they had ‘just a little tingling’ or ‘a little numbness’ that they ignored – and then it escalated,” he said. “In my field, we always say: Time is brain. There’s so much we can do for patients who’ve had a stroke. But for the best outcomes, like Mr. Christy’s, we need to see them soon after the onset of symptoms.”