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Health Team

Stroke Survivor Message Is to Avoid the Predictable Perils

Posted April 26, 2007 5:41 p.m. EDT
Updated April 26, 2007 5:59 p.m. EDT

— A stroke can happen to anyone, but certain risk factors increase your risk. Ask former CBS personality Mark McEwen.

McEwen, a weather and entertainment anchor with the CBS Early Show until 2002, suffered a major stroke in November 2005. He was about to fly on a business trip when he had his first symptoms. They were symptoms of a mini-stroke, but he says his doctors misdiagnosed it.

"They thought I had the flu,” McEwen said. “I had a stroke and they sent me home.”

“If they had said the word ‘stroke,’ at all, I wouldn't have flown. But they didn't, so when I flew again to Florida, back home, then I had what they call a massive stroke. Nine out of 10 people who had what I had die. I'm the 10th one."

McEwen spent all of 2006 in rehabilitation.

"When I first came out, I couldn't walk, could barely talk. I was in a wheelchair, then a walker. I couldn't drive. I had a chair in the shower,” McEwen said. Now, though, “All that's gone."

If you've had one stroke, you're at much higher risk for another, so McEwen changed his lifestyle. He exercises regularly and is losing weight.

“I avoid salt. I avoid sugar, avoid fried foods. A stroke can happen to anyone, but you can minimize the risk factors," McEwen said.

Those controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight and leading an inactive lifestyle and having a heart condition called atrial fibrillation.

Some risk factors cannot be controlled, like a family history of stroke. African Americans are twice as likely to die from stroke as Caucasians.

McEwen is now promoting a stroke study called Second Chances to follow the progress and setbacks of stroke survivors.

"A stroke is like dropping a pebble into a lake, that ripple effect, the caregivers, the family, the job, the friends. The ripples go out, and we're going to find out what survivors do, what life is like after having a stroke," McEwen said.

Diane Mulligan-Fairfield with the National Stroke Association says an acronym called "FAST" may help people quickly recognize stroke symptoms. FAST stands for Face, Arms, Speech and Time.

"Face" is, ask someone to smile and see if one half droops.

"Arm" is, ask for someone to hold both arms out and see if one side goes down, which can indicate paralysis on one side of the body.

"Speech" is, ask someone to repeat a simple sentence like, 'The sky is blue.' See if it comes out garbled or slurred.

"Time" is getting to the hospital. "And right now," Mulligan-Fairfield said, "it's very important to know where stroke centers in your area are because you may get really good stroke care if you're at a stroke center."

If you reach a stroke center within three hours of the first symptoms, you will be evaluated and you may receive an injection of a drug called tissue plasminogen activator — tPA — to dissolve the clot in your brain. If administered soon enough, tPA increases your chances of survival and restoring normal functioning of your mind and body.

McEwen is traveling around the country to promote the study, and he's planning a book that he calls "A Change in the Weather" about his stroke experience.