In tiny Meadows of Dan, Virginia (pop. 1,418), there is a shortage of experienced, trained neurologists. That’s common in rural communities.

The scarcity forces many stroke patients to bypass their local hospitals, causing a risky delay in receiving treatment.

Sharon Parker, 76, who lives in Meadows of Dan, faced that dilemma when she developed stroke symptoms in early March. Fortunately, Novant Health’s virtual health service and the medicine Parker was quickly administered saved her life that day.

“I wound up at the right place at the right time,” Parker said.

A quick diagnosis and treatment locally is convenient, can help save lives and improve recovery. For the past decade, Novant Health’s virtual program has provided prompt aid for stroke patients in rural areas.

Today, the program continues to grow.

That’s vital, because Novant Health’s footprint in three states (both Carolinas and Virginia) is firmly in the Stroke Belt.” It’s the unofficial name for an 11-state region of the southeastern U.S. where studies show that the stroke risk is 34 percent higher for the general population than in other areas of the country.

Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

Time is of the essence

Parker and friends were driving to meet her sister and brother-in-law for lunch in March. Hey Sharon, someone asked, what do you plan on eating?

Parker tried to respond, but her speech was garbled.

When the group arrived at the restaurant, Parker's sister Ann Conner, a retired nurse, noticed the stroke symptom and immediately drove Parker to the nearest hospital.

Virtual programs can match doctors to patients remotely, and provide prompt treatment for stroke.

Ten minutes later, Parker arrived at Twin County Regional Hospital, a Novant Health affiliate in Galax, Virginia. A Novant Health neurologist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – 64 miles away - was able to speak with her via video chat.

The provider reviewed Parker’s brain scans and recommended she receive tPA, a medication that can break up the blood clot and restore blood flow to the brain.

To be effective, tPA has to be administered within 4-1/2 hours of the first sign of stroke. That's where Novant Health’s program helped Parker – it allowed the off-site neurologist to diagnose the stroke quickly and recommend using tPA.

Within 10 minutes of receiving the medicine, Parker was speaking clearly and reciting her name. Parker had no complications from the stroke.

Parker said she’s grateful for a program that connected her with a specialist at Novant Health almost instantly. She avoided a 90-minute drive to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and instead received a diagnosis and medicine much quicker.

By using interactive videoconferencing, the neurologist can consult with the on-site care team at the patient’s bedside, view and discuss the results of diagnostic tests and perform other necessary exams.

“Not only did our service probably save Sharon's life, but it also allowed her to stay in the comfort of her hometown for her treatment, something very valuable when you're experiencing a life-threating situation," said Amy Jones, Novant Health’s manager of neuro emergencies and telemedicine.

Novant Health tele-neuro patients experiencing a stroke also are candidates for a mechanical thrombectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the blood clot from inside the artery to restore blood flow to the brain. This treatment, like tPA, provides great outcomes for tele-neuro patients.

It requires transfer to one of the system’s two advanced comprehensive stroke centers (Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center and Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center).

Growing the program

Novant Health is expanding the tele-neuro program through partnerships with seven affiliates, including Ashe Memorial Hospital in Jefferson, North Carolina, Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin, North Carolina, Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, North Carolina, Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax, Virginia, and Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Virginia.  

"Only 10 health systems in the country offer this service to affiliates," said Nick Sullivan, Novant Health’s vice president of stroke and neurosciences. "Most systems only offer the service at their own facilities. This is another big reason that our affiliates sign on so enthusiastically."

Novant Health plans to add the service to many other hospitals, clinics and emergency rooms.

Your brain and nervous system control everything you do. Here’s a guide to help understand why specialized care is so crucial, whether you’re having a stroke or living with a chronic condition.