Teacher Returns to Classroom 8 Days After Stroke

Stroke Patient Returns To TeachingOn the one year anniversary of his stroke, Blair Russell spent the evening with friends at Busch Stadium cheering his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, on to a win.

On May 4, 2015, 37-year-old Blair Russell was teaching his fifth-graders math, just as he did every day after lunch. Suddenly, something felt off. “I was walking around the classroom. I never sit while I teach, so I was walking around when three fingers on my left hand went numb,” said Russell.

Russell reached for his water and tried to take a drink but it dribbled down his chin. He tried to sit down but fell to the floor. When three boys couldn’t help him into his chair, they got the school nurse. Russell wasn’t sure what was happening. But when the nurse got to his side, she said something he did not expect. She told him he was having a stroke. He asked someone to call his wife, all while his fifth-graders watched.

When EMTs arrived, Russell again heard the word “stroke.” Once at an area hospital, he recalls a robot type computer equipped with a camera. Through the technology of telemedicine, a neurologist asked Russell to raise his arm. “In my mind, I was. It felt like I was but when I looked down, my arm hadn’t moved.” He also remembers a doctor telling the medical staff to get him to Barnes-Jewish Hospital as soon as possible.

Before he was transported, Russell received the clot-busting drug known as tPA. Tissue plasminogen activator is the only FDA-approved drug for treating strokes caused by the blockage of an artery in the brain. But tPA was only the beginning of his treatment. Based on the clinical exam, Russell’s stroke was assessed to be moderate in severity, suggesting the blockage was in an artery that might be accessible by endovascular catheters, further reason to get him to Barnes-Jewish.

Within minutes of his arrival, the stroke team activated the rapid response protocol and conducted a computed tomographic angiography, or a CTA. Jin-Moo Lee, MD, PhD, a Washington University neurologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, was the attending neurologist. “We could see that there was a clot blocking a major artery that fed the right side of his brain—explaining the symptoms that he was experiencing,” said Dr. Lee.

Russell was sent immediately to DeWitte Cross, MD, a Washington University interventional neuroradiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Dr. Cross performed an endovascular clot removal procedure. “We made two separate passes with that catheter. We were able to retrieve some of the clot but not all of it. Then we used the stent retriever. After several passes, we were able to retrieve the clot,” said Dr. Cross. “Interventional treatments have come a long way in the past five years.” After many years of stagnation, there have been significant breakthroughs in stroke treatments recently.

When it comes to stroke, every minute matters and time saved is brain saved. For Russell, the onset of symptoms started around 1:40 p.m. Three hours later, Dr. Cross was removing the clot. Eight days later, Russell returned to work and his students. “They saved my life just as much as the nurses and doctors. I wanted to tell them myself I was ok. I wanted to send them off the right way for the summer,” Russell said.

As Missouri’s first certified Comprehensive Stroke Center, the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center is able to treat patients with stroke faster than other emergency departments in the area, with more successful recoveries.

Our stroke team has made a commitment to making sure patients have the best acute stroke care possible by collaborating with other hospitals to create a Stroke Network. Area hospitals work closely with Barnes-Jewish to streamline and improve stroke care, regardless of where a patient is located.

“With increasing treatment options available at only certain hospitals like Barnes-Jewish, we are becoming a unique resource in the larger St. Louis region. Therefore, acute stroke care is becoming regionalized, and we must make our resources available to the larger community,” said Dr. Lee.

Russell still has some weakness caused by the stroke but overall, he says he has recovered well. “I’m lucky to be here,” Russell said. “And that’s how I look at life now. If my team doesn’t win, it’s okay. If I didn’t do a great job teaching one day, I’ll do better tomorrow. It’s going to be okay.”

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Category: Neurology & Neurosurgery

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Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University Medical Center is the largest hospital in Missouri and the largest private employer in the St. Louis region. An affiliated teaching hospital of Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital has a 1,800 member medical staff with many who are recognized as "Best Doctors in America." They are supported by residents, interns and fellows, in addition to nurses, technicians and other health-care professionals.

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