Local News

Long's widow works to educate public on strokes

Posted May 27, 2009 6:13 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2009 7:08 p.m. EDT

— Every 20 minutes, someone in North Carolina has a stroke, according to public health officials, and stroke rates in eastern North Carolina are twice the national average.

Raising public awareness about the dangers of strokes has become a mission for Peg O'Connell since her husband, former state Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, died in February after suffering a massive stroke.

Long, who stepped down in January after 24 years as insurance commissioner, was at the Legislative Building on Jan. 21 following a hearing into insurance rates for coastal homeowners when he collapsed in an office. He had complained of a severe headache and fell, but had regained consciousness by the time paramedics arrived, his wife said.

"Jim was laughing and carrying on. He couldn't get up, but he could still talk. (He was) telling them jokes in the ambulance," she said.

Long lapsed into a coma at the hospital and died 12 days later.

"I have good days, and I have bad days, good hours and bad hours," said O'Connell, who now wears Long's wedding ring on a chain. "When he was in the hospital, they needed to take it off. So, I put it on for a while and now wear it every day."

An attorney and health care advocate, she's also working closely with physicians at UNC Hospitals to educate the public about lifestyle changes that can prevent strokes and knowing the warning signs of strokes.

Long is one of more than 4,500 North Carolinians expected to die this year after suffering a stroke. An unhealthy diet, smoking and a lack of exercise are among the risk factors that can cause a stroke.

"It's like a heart attack, but it's affecting the brain. So, it's a brain attack, except that the symptoms are more complex," said Dr. Souvik Sen, director of UNC Hospitals Stroke Center.

Sen and his staff treat some of the most severe stroke cases in eastern North Carolina. Since 1996, physicians have used a clot-busting drug to treat some strokes, but special CT scanners at the center can handle tougher cases.

Physicians can scan a patient's brain in 90 seconds to quickly refine an initial diagnosis, he said.

"This is why the helicopter comes into play," Sen said. "Most small hospitals have the clot-busting treatment, but for treatment like this, they have to come over here."

Quick response is key to saving a stroke victim's life or preventing permanent brain damage, he said.

"Call 911, and EMS is the fastest way to get to the emergency room," he said.