Back from the Brink…

Quick Treatment Saves Life

On a warm June afternoon, Michael Hermes, 47, was dropping off umbrellas for a graduation party at his niece’s home in Napa when the first wave of dizziness hit him. He immediately asked his wife Michelle to drive him home to Vacaville. He was hoping that 40 minutes later, everything would be normal again.

But it wasn’t. Not only was he still feeling dizzy, but one side of his body felt numb. Years ago, he suffered a bout with encephalitis, and it felt similar. Could it be coming back? When his vision started to blur, he knew something else was really wrong.

He and Michelle headed for NorthBay VacaValley Hospital, where he was quickly assessed as a potential stroke patient. Soon, he was being introduced to Dr. Alan Shatzel via a teleconferencing robot. Dr. Shatzel, medical director of Neurology Services for the Mercy Neurological Institute in Sacramento, asked Michael a number of questions and used the robot’s cameras to take a closer look at his condition. CT scans were ordered and medication begun.

“I remember that I had one idea of the time line and my wife had another. Now I know why they were so persistent about what time we left Napa. They wanted to make sure I was in the time range to qualify for the medication.” All he remembers is taking a medication they called IV-TPA, and then an ambulance ride to Mercy, with his son at his side.

When NorthBay launched its stroke program in 2010, it was in partnership with the Mercy Neurological Institute, which provides neurologists around the clock to teleconference with NorthBay staff and patients. In some cases, NorthBay can handle all the treatment necessary, but in cases such as Michael’s where advanced interventional procedures or surgery are required, patients are transferred to Mercy.

Since October 2010, the robot has been used for teleconference in 26 cases, and seven patients have been sent to Sacramento for surgical care.

In Michael’s case, stroke intervention was not only essential, it was urgent. By the time he arrived, his left side started to feel numb, too. “They told my wife to say goodbye, that if they didn’t do the interventional procedure that minute, I might not make it. I was praying like you wouldn’t believe,” he recalls.

In Mercy’s advanced neuro-interventional bi-plane angiography suite, Dr. Lotfi Hacein-Bey, an interventional neuroradiologist, removed a clot from blood vessels in Michael’s brain stem. And a month or so after his stroke, Dr. Hacein-Bey placed a stent in Michael’s brain, improving the flow of blood.

Today, Michael is a walking miracle. Yes, he’s walking and talking and has no major memory issues. Michael, a produce manager for Food 4 Less in Woodland, says he received some powerful help in Mercy’s Acute Care Rehabilitation program. Balance and coordination are still an issue, especially on his left side. But he can eat without help, has good recall and can articulate thoughts without trouble.

Looking back, Michael realizes he could have made some healthier choices. He worked long hours, ate fast food on the fly and stopped taking his cholesterol medicine, even though his family had a history of high cholesterol and circulation issues.

He also had a long history of chewing tobacco, thinking that it was the smoke that presented the danger. “It’s a mistake a lot of people make,” explained Dr. Hacein-Bey. “It’s the chemicals that cause harm. He was just as much at risk with chewing tobacco as with cigarettes.”

He also erred in thinking he was OK because he was not overweight and was physically strong. “I thought I was in fairly decent shape, and that it couldn’t happen to me. I thought I’d save $40 a month, but now I’m religious about taking my medication.”

His message to anyone on cholesterol medication is to take it seriously and not to skip a dose. And if you do have any problems, get in to the Emergency Department right away. Call 9-1-1 and give the team time to assemble, because when it comes to a stroke, every minute counts.

Dr. Shatzel agrees. “Patients who come to the Emergency Department immediately when symptoms occur have every opportunity to have full and complete recovery,” says Dr. Shatzel. “Patients who have access to experienced stroke teams and comprehensive stroke centers like ours have the best chance of survival, minimal disability and many make a complete recovery.

“If Michael did not receive IV-TPA and subsequent transfer to our interventional center for definitive clot removal and vessel repair, he would likely have died or
at a minimum be severely disabled,” admits Dr. Shatzel.

“I really think it was a matter of everything lining up,” Michael says. “That’s why I believe in a higher power. I’m not done yet.”

Stroke Facts

  • A stroke is the sudden death of brain cells due to inadequate blood flow.
  • Stroke often occurs without warning.
  • More than one-half million people in the United States experience a new or recurrent stroke each year.
  • Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of disability.
  • Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
  • Strokes kill about 160,000 Americans each year, or almost one out of three stroke victims.
  • Three million Americans are currently permanently disabled from strokes.
  • In the United States, strokes cost about $30 billion per year in direct costs and loss of productivity.
  • Two-thirds of strokes occur in people over age 65 but they can occur at any age.
  • Strokes affect men more often than women, although women are more likely to die from a stroke.
  • Strokes affect blacks more often than whites, and are more likely to be fatal among blacks.
  • Treatment to break up a blood clot, the major cause of stroke, must begin as soon as possible, with limited time frames for stroke treatments to be effective.

Source: Dr. Alan Shatzel, medical director Mercy Neurological Institute

Stroke Support forSurvivors & Caregivers

The New Beginnings Stroke Support Group meets the third Tuesday of every month at 10 a.m. in Community United Methodist Church, 1875 Fairfield Ave., Fairfield.

The group started in November 2001 at the urging of stroke survivors and caregivers. For more information, contact Noreen O’Regan at (707) 816-7255 or e-mail her at

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