Sea Sick: When stroke signs appear, fast action is critical

Sep 24, 2019 by Keith Murray

Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

Earlier this year, American actor Luke Perry died from a stroke at the age of 52. Here are some other famous people who also died from a stroke: Bill Paxton,  age 63; Cary Grant, 82; Winston Churchill, 91; Joseph Stalin, 75; Richard Nixon, 81; Woodrow Wilson, 68; Al Capone, 48; Rick James, 56; Curly Howard, 49; and Willie Stargell, 61. But what is a stroke, and how do we recognize and treat one? 

It’s important to know that not all strokes are “The Big One” that causes  death. Often times people have mini-strokes, or TIAs. A TIA, or transient ischemic attack, is also called a “warning stroke.” These mini-strokes are often a warning that the big one is coming unless you seek immediate medical attention. 

The mini-strokes often produce stroke-like symptoms, but generally cause no lasting damage. Recognizing and treating TIAs may reduce your risk of a major stroke. Often TIA symptoms are the same as those of a stroke, except that they are only temporary. The short duration of these symptoms and lack of permanent brain injury is the main difference between TIA and stroke. 

My father had a mini-stroke a few years ago. His symptoms were not easily recognizable. I first noticed a trail of peanuts throughout my home when he was visiting. He kept dropping the peanuts he was snacking on when walking around my house. My mother later noticed he was shuffling his feet. It was not until he started to experience other symptoms that it was realized he needed medical attention. At the hospital, the doctors initially saw no signs of a stroke. The second day, they discovered he had experienced a mini-stroke. Fortunately for my dad, he made a full recovery. 

When reading this column today,  please ask yourself if somebody you  loved were having a stroke, heart attack or other medical emergency, would you  know what to do? Could you help them? Do you know how to recognize a stroke? Do you know how to treat a stroke? What would you do if one of your crew begins to slur words and appears confused, is not walking well and not making much sense? What can it be? Could this be a stroke? 

A stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency that can cause paralysis, coma and death. It is the brain’s version of a heart attack. A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain (ischemic stroke), or when an artery bursts and blood leaks into brain tissue (hemorrhagic stroke). 

Think of a stroke as a plumbing problem at home or on board. Either your pipes are blocked with rust (plaque) or the pipe is leaking. 

When either of these happen, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs. Where the damage to the brain occurs and how much of the brain is damaged will determine which symptoms the person will display. Here are typical symptoms you may observe:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

It should be noted that women may also experience unique stroke symptoms that may include sudden face and limb pain, sudden hiccups, sudden nausea, sudden general weakness, sudden chest pain, sudden shortness of breath and  sudden palpitation. 

What can we do to help? Recognizing that a person may be having a stroke and getting the person to a hospital as quickly as possible is the best way to help. If you think someone may be having a stroke, act F.A.S.T with this simple test: 

Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop? 

Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? 

Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange? 

Time: If you observe any of these signs, get medical attention immediately. 

Note the time when the symptoms first began. There is only about a three-hour window for a clot-busting medication to be given at the hospital. It is very important that the stroke victim get to a hospital as quickly as possible. You should stay with the victim, place them in a position of comfort, and monitor their breathing and consciousness. 

To learn more about stroke warning signs and other medical emergencies, take a CPR, AED and first-aid class. Ideally, everyone should take a refresher class at least every two years. Often classes can be conducted at your location – on your boat, or at your business. Shipboard training allows the crew to develop plans, review first-aid supplies, and talk about medical emergencies as they relate specifically to their crew, passengers and various ports of call. 

The American Stroke Association has a free app that you can download. Please be sure to visit their site, and send the link to a friend – 

EMT Keith Murray provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service. His company can be found at Comments are welcome below.