Tossing and turning in the middle of the night can be incredibly frustrating, but for Sunset Beach, North Carolina, resident Margie “Kay” Pope, a sleepless night turned out to be a lifesaver.

“All of the sudden I realized my right arm was going numb, but it was a ‘weird-feeling’ numb. It wasn't your typical, you know, my hand is falling asleep. I describe it to people as feeling like a wave was going through my body,” Pope said.

She didn’t know it then, but she was having a stroke. Thankfully, something in her gut told her something was “really wrong.” Pope followed her intuition, and it made all the difference in her road to a diagnosis and – more importantly – her recovery. (Listen to the podcast below to hear Pope's story in her own words.)

Every minute is critical

Dr. Vinodh T. Doss smiles.
Dr. Vinodh T. Doss

Every four minutes, someone in the U.S. dies of stroke. It’s one of the most common neurological diseases and a leading cause of disability, said Dr. Vinodh T. Doss, interventional neurologist and medical director of stroke and interventional surgery at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Every minute a stroke is left untreated can mean the difference between permanent disability and a full recovery. That’s because up to 2 million brain cells die every 60 seconds when oxygen and nutrients are cut off.

“If you come through our doors in Wilmington, you're going to be triaged and treated very quickly. We have some of the best treatment times in the country,” Doss said. “But if you're even 30 or 45 minutes away, that changes – and that shouldn't be the case.”

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Artificial intelligence is speeding up stroke care

To speed treatment, Novant Health partnered with Viz.ai, a software platform that uses artificial intelligence to synchronize stroke care and reduce delays that can stand between patients and lifesaving treatments. Every Novant Health stroke specialist has access to Viz.ai on their smartphone.

In a rural hospital setting, it often takes at least an hour to get results from some of the more critical scans. Viz.ai sends the scan immediately to the “cloud” to be read by artificial intelligence. The technology analyzes images for a suspected blockage of one of the main arteries of the brain, known as a large vessel occlusion (LVO) stroke. As a result, the 60-minute wait time has been reduced to under 10 minutes in most cases.

“This is about leveraging technology,” Doss said. “By using this, we can extend ourselves out into the rural communities. People have immediate access to neurovascular expertise, right at the push of a button. We’re reducing transfer times, and that’s part of our goal right now in becoming a comprehensive stroke center for the whole region.”

‘The most terrifying thing I've ever had happen in my life’

Margie "Kay" Pope, 64, smiles with her 1-year-old Sheltie puppy.
Margie "Kay" Pope, 64, smiles with her 1-year-old Sheltie puppy.

Around 3 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2019, 64-year-old Pope noticed her right arm was going numb and immediately knew “something wasn’t right.” She woke up her husband, Frank and he drove them 30 minutes to the nearest emergency room at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in Bolivia, North Carolina.

“Fortunately, I didn't do my normal, because I've always been a very healthy person. I have a tendency to say, ‘Oh, it'll go away. I'll be fine’ – which is the worst thing I could have done,” Pope said.

The ER team ran a series of tests, and Viz.ai quickly found a blocked artery and determined Pope was having an LVO stroke. Her condition was rapidly deteriorating.

“I could no longer speak, so the symptoms had gradually gotten worse. It started with the numbness, then I had no use of my right arm, and the right side of my face started to droop. I was still coherent and awake, but I couldn't form any words,” Pope said. “It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had happen in my life.”

Frank Pope, 65, enjoys a day on the boat in Sunset Beach, North Carolina.
Frank Pope, 65, enjoys a day on the boat in Sunset Beach, North Carolina.

It was determined she would be transferred to NHRMC in Wilmington via helicopter, where Doss, an interventional neurologist, would perform surgery. That stroke team was prepared before Pope even arrived, thanks to swift and open communication between care teams on the Viz.ai software platform.

“Kay went straight to the angiography suite, and that's where we got to work,” Doss said. “I had the artery open in a matter of minutes and she benefited from that quick care.”

Less than four hours after experiencing her first symptoms, Pope was out of surgery. She went home the very next day. While she has no lasting effects from the stroke, Pope was diagnosed with a heart condition known as noncompaction cardiomyopathy – a rare disease of the heart muscle that’s present at birth. It's genetic and what doctors say prompted her stroke.

“Not knowing about my heart condition, I didn’t have any typical signs of someone who was at risk for a stroke. When everyone found out what happened, they were shocked that I was the one this happened to. People can die from things like this, or I could have been severely paralyzed. Now I know exactly what to look for,” Pope said.

Today, she is able to manage her heart condition with a cardiologist. She’s also enjoying retirement with her husband after successful careers in insurance and finance. Pope is an avid puzzle enthusiast, boats and walks on the beach, and said their 1-year-old Sheltie puppy keeps them moving.

Signs you’re experiencing a stroke

In the U.S., more than 795,000 people have a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Stroke risk increases with age, but strokes can – and do – occur at any age.

Symptoms of stroke can be remembered by using the acronym BE FAST:

  • Balance: Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination.
  • Eyesight: Double vision, blurry vision, or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Face: Facial drooping, typically on one side or the other.
  • Arms: Sudden numbness or weakness in the arm, face or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Speech: Slurred speech, inability to speak or difficulty understanding speech.
  • Time: Time is critical if experiencing these symptoms. Seek help immediately.
  • Help prevent stroke with a healthy lifestyle

    Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes and controlling health conditions that raise your risk for stroke, according to the CDC.

    Having high cholesterol or high blood pressure increases stroke risk, as does being overweight. Here’s what you can do:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat foods low in saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol, but high in fiber, which can help curb high cholesterol levels.
  • Limit salt intake to maintain a healthy blood pressure.
  • Exercise to maintain a healthy weight and lower both cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
  • Other lifestyle factors, such as quitting smoking, can also lower the risk of stroke.