On a May afternoon just this year, Ginny Anne Smith woke from a nap, crumpled to the floor and couldn’t get up. She couldn’t remember how to use her cellphone.
“I crawled to the front door and crawled down the driveway to get to the street,” said the longtime Charlotte resident. “I thought I’d get the driver of the first car I saw to call an ambulance. A nice lady stopped and sat with me for a few minutes until the ambulance came. My neighbor across the street, who I’m very close to, came flying out when she saw the ambulance. She told EMTs to take me to Presbyterian, and I’m glad she did.”
Smith, proud to say she’s 93, was a youthful 92 at the time of this incident. She’d had a stroke, which was why she couldn’t stand or walk. Looking back, her doctors at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center marveled at her resilience. She marvels at her doctors and the other team members who flew into action when her stretcher hit the ER doors: “Novant Health saved my life.”
Check-ups are a smart first step in stroke prevention.
The clock was ticking
When Smith arrived at the hospital on May 10, she had a CT scan, which showed a blockage on the left side of her brain. A special type of CT scan, called a perfusion scan, showed how much of her brain was at risk.
Dr. Andrew Griffin, a neuro-interventional radiologist, got a call at home about Smith’s suspected stroke, and – thanks to an AI app that lets Novant Health neurosurgeons receive and view brain scans on their phones – he had instant access to her scans. He saw that it was serious; it was a large vessel occlusion, or blockage, of a major artery. But the good news, Griffin said, was that he could still save her brain if he could get to the clot in time.
“I rushed to the hospital – I live less than 10 minutes away – and, after a discussion with her children, we decided to proceed with a thrombectomy, a procedure where we remove the blockage in the brain that caused the stroke,” Griffin continued. While thrombectomies have only been around since 2010, more than 60,000 are performed each year in the United States.
“When I first met Mrs. Smith, she couldn’t speak or move the right side of her body,” he added. “Some stroke patients can receive a clot-busting IV drug (Tenecteplase), but she wasn’t a candidate. It must be given within four-and-a-half hours of the patient’s ‘last-known normal,’” Smith had last been seen normal at 10 a.m. then arrived at the hospital around 5:30, so she’d missed that window.
For Smith’s procedure, Griffin made a small incision in her leg. From there, he snaked a catheter up through an artery to her brain to suck the clot out. From the time a surgeon makes that incision, it takes only about 10 to 15 minutes to remove the clot.
After what turned out to be only Smith’s first procedure, Griffin went home. At the hospital the next morning, he found Smith with her family – awake, alert and “back to her baseline – just the way she was before the stroke,” he said. “She had essentially made a complete recovery almost immediately, which is amazing and always the goal of the procedure.”
At that point, she was under the care of Dr. Laurie McWilliams, a neuro-intensivist and medical director of inpatient neurology and neurology department chair at Presbyterian Medical Center.
That afternoon, almost 24 hours after the original procedure, Smith began exhibiting the same symptoms she had the day before. Again, she had a blockage on the same side of her brain. In the same artery. That’s nearly unheard of, said both McWilliams and Griffin, who added, “I’ve performed thrombectomies on the same patient before – but months or years apart. Never 24 hours apart.”
Griffin talked to the family again. He told them that, because it had been caught quickly, he thought he could remove it a second time with a good outcome. “Without it, I didn’t think she’d survive,” he said.
“She’s an amazing lady,” McWilliams added. “She did so well because she was so healthy to begin with. That’s why I encourage patients to exercise and be active. If you survive something like this, you’ll likely have a much better outcome if you’re healthy to start with.”
According to Smith, her son, Ollie, joked with doctors and nurses that his mom “was just an old goat and that (she’d) get over this.”
Smith said, “I got a kick out of that.”
The secret to longevity? Find your passion.
Smith charmed everyone she met during her nine-day hospital stay. She talked to her doctors and the staff about her favorite hobby – one she didn’t even start until she was 70: antiquing. “I promise you it’s what’s keeping me alive,” she said.
She often sells her finds at consignment stores and is a big believer in hobbies. “When people don't have a passion in their life, they can get in trouble,” she said.
“I used to do intensive gardening, which I absolutely loved, and my garden was gorgeous,” she said. “My heart’s desire is … to drop dead in my backyard in a big hole I’d just dug for a plant.”
When her primary care doctor moved away about six years ago, Smith quit going to the doctor. Now, she’s an evangelist for regular doctors’ visits. “I tell everybody to keep in regular touch with their doctor,” she said. “And I tell them: Keep your family informed of all the medical issues in your life.”
She hasn’t always taken her own advice. She didn't tell anyone when she started having heart palpitations in bed at night. “I thought it was just a minor nuisance,” she said. “It would last maybe five or 10 minutes and then calm down. And there was no pain involved.” It turned out to be Afib, or atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that requires a doctor’s attention.
The ever-upbeat Smith talks about her ICU stay like it was an unplanned vacation. “It was a great experience,” she said. “I cannot say enough good things about Novant Health. I got the best care. Dr. Griffin was fabulous. I felt so absolutely comfortable with him. He and his associates saved my life, no question about it. And Dr. McWilliams was wonderful. In fact, when I got ready to leave, I asked if she could be my new general practitioner.”
Smith is amazed that she doesn’t have long-term effects from her ordeal: “I’m still a little weak, but other than that, I’d never know I had had a stroke.”
She goes to the gym – Novant Health Wellness Center – three times a week, which a physical therapist suggested. “I thought: Me? At this point in my life? But I love it. I feel like I’m getting stronger every week.”
Smith has just one limitation. She can’t drive until she has cataract surgery. (She’d been driving at the time of her stroke surgery.) Her friends are delivering meals to her since she can’t get to the grocery store. But the main reason Smith wants her driving privileges back: “I want to get down to Southport,” where she delivers her antiques to a consignment shop.
She loves the coast, but she adores her home and feels lucky she can still live there. Five years ago, at the urging of a niece, Smith made a downpayment at a retirement community.
“It was a small downpayment – really just a reservation,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going. My mother was in a nursing home for eight years, and it was perfect for her. But at that point, Mom was a lot more beat up than I am now. I want to die peacefully in this old house. And thank you, Novant Health, for enabling me to think like that.”