Paula Theus was at home on a recent Sunday afternoon, having just finished eating dinner, when she lost the ability to speak.
"What's wrong?" her 79-year-old mother, Andrewleen Hornsby, asked.
She wasn't able to say.
Hornsby called the paramedics. Theus started drifting in and out of consciousness. The last she remembers, she was getting X-rays.
She woke up the next day.
"Does your head hurt?" a doctor asked.
This time, she could answer.
"Does anything hurt?"
Theus, a 45-year-old customer-service specialist from Kansas City, Kan., was lucky she became ill where she did. She had a stroke in the same city as one of the premier stroke centers in the nation at Kansas University Hospital.
Her miraculous recovery — Theus used the word "miracle" at least a half-dozen times in a recent interview — might not have been possible if not for the hospital's recent focus on treating strokes. It has invested in state-of-the-art equipment and given its staff special training in order to offer comprehensive stroke care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In December, it became one of the first five health-care facilities in the nation to be designated as an advanced comprehensive stroke center.
One person in particular is mighty thankful for that. The hospital had doctors on site April 7 to remove the clot that was restricting blood flow to Theus' brain.
"Once they did that, it was just me again," she said. "It was amazing. It was like nothing ever happened."
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, a time when medical experts aim to inform Americans about the risk factors behind strokes, as well as how to treat them. Strokes are the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., hospitalizing nearly a million Americans every year. Kansans, meanwhile, annually suffer 55,000 strokes and have an especially high 46.5 percent mortality rate.
In treating strokes, one thing matters above all else: time.
When Theus' speech stopped and the left side of her body started drooping, her mother knew exactly what was happening. She had seen it once before, when she watched her own mother have a stroke. She knew to call the paramedics immediately.
The quicker doctors are able to treat a stroke patient, the less severe the long-term symptoms are likely to be. That's because an estimated 2 million brain cells die every minute someone is having a stroke.
"Strokes can be treated if you go to the hospital early," said Colleen Lechtenberg, director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Kansas University Hospital. "It's a time-sensitive treatment."
Patients can take clot-buster drugs only within the first 4.5 hours after the onset of symptoms, and utilize a clot-removal device only within the first six to eight hours.
That's why it's crucial to know the signs of a stroke, which consist of face droopiness, slurred speech, loss of sight in one eye, double vision, clumsiness and not having the ability to hold both arms out in front of you. Also important is mitigating the factors that cause strokes in the first place. Those include high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity.
The Kansas University Hospital has long been a leader in neurological care. Over the past five years, it decided to focus on becoming a top-of-the-line stroke center. The center now has five board-certified stroke neurologists, a neurological intensive-care unit and state-of-the-art imaging technology, allowing it to offer stroke-reversal treatment in even the most severe cases.
"It took a lot of effort from a lot of people and a lot of teamwork to reach the (advanced-comprehensive-stroke-center) designation," Lechtenberg said. "It means a lot of Kansas residents and people in the (Kansas City) metro care that we have a comprehensive stroke center in our state."
It definitely means a lot to Theus. A little more than three weeks after her stroke, she has few symptoms. While she has a speech-therapy appointment scheduled for next month, she isn't sure she'll need it. Her speech is almost back to normal; she just has minor difficulty recalling words.
"I really cannot give enough glory to the doctors, the staff," she said. "It was just a miracle, that's all I can say. It was the best (medical care) that I've ever had, and thank God I was in their care. They treated me just wonderfully."