Pandemic or not: Don’t delay stroke care


In this article:

  • During a pandemic, people understandably wanted to avoid the emergency room, but delaying care for a stroke could have tragic effects.

  • Two million brain cells die every minute during a stroke -- getting fast care can help reduce the risk of severe side effects, such as paralysis or aphasia.

  • Medical director for the Providence Stroke Center, Ted Lowenkopf, M.D., advises what to look for and what to do if you think someone might be having a stroke.

After wrapping up dinner one night, Jack Strayer and his wife, Linda, sat down to relax in their recliners and watch a bit of comedy. As they were leaning back to enjoy the program, Jack suddenly felt the room spin.

“I didn’t have any pain, but it felt like someone hit me with a two-by-four,” Jack says. “It was totally debilitating.” 

Without a second thought, Linda jumped up and called 911. A few minutes later, Jack’s speech started to slur and he couldn’t move the right side of his body. Then, he stopped breathing. 

“It happened while I was on the phone with the 911 operator, so I started doing chest compressions,” Linda says. Shortly after she started the compressions, EMTs were at the door ready to take Jack to the hospital. 

Time is brain

Lucky for Jack, his wife acted quickly and he was able to get to an emergency room to receive life-saving stroke treatment 30 minutes after his symptoms started. Now, other than a bit of fatigue, you wouldn’t know that he suffered a stroke. 

“I’m just grateful he’s here,” Linda says.

Because time is of the essence when it comes to stroke treatment, it’s crucial not to delay care — even during a pandemic. Since the new coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the U.S., emergency rooms across the country have seen a drop in visits for critical care. At Providence, the number of people coming into the emergency room with stroke symptoms dropped 20% between mid-March and mid-April 2020. That drop doesn’t mean the rate of stroke has decreased, but the number of people coming in with symptoms has.

“There is no evidence that shows coming to a hospital will increase your risk of COVID-19,” says Ted Lowenkopf, MD, medical director for the Providence Stroke Center. “As soon as you recognize stroke symptoms in yourself or anyone else, call 911.”

A stroke happens when a blood clot blocks an artery that leads to the brain. When blood can’t flow to the brain, the brain cells may stop working and eventually die.

Rapid stroke treatment can save precious brain cells and prevent long-term side effects. Roughly two million brain cells die every minute during a stroke, which can lead to paralysis and movement problems. It can also cause major language and communication issues like aphasia

“Strokes can cause significant disabilities,” Dr. Lowenkopf adds. “But if you seek treatment fast, you can reverse the side effects of stroke completely.” 

Know the symptoms

Getting timely stroke treatment starts with understanding the symptoms. However, it’s crucial to remember that these signs can vary from person to person.

Take Jack, for example. His initial symptom of a spinning room may not be what most people associate with stroke symptoms. But his wife knew something was wrong and called 911. 

When in doubt, seek treatment and don’t delay care.


One of the most common ways to remember stroke symptoms is to use the acronym BE FAST. 

  • B – Balance. Sudden loss of balance.
  • E – Eyes. Sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • F – Face. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?  
  • A – Arms. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S – Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
  • T – Time. If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately. 

Dr. Lowenkopf also notes that it’s critical to call 911 and not to drive the person to the hospital yourself. EMTs are more organized and equipped to get patients into the emergency room faster, which means more rapid treatment. 

What about small or minor strokes? 

Some people may also experience a mild stroke or temporary symptoms from a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA, also called a “mini-stroke,” happens when the blood supply to the brain is temporarily interrupted or cut off. This results in a sudden but brief decrease in brain function. 

Symptoms of TIAs can be subtle and may come and go quickly — sometimes lasting less than an hour. You may wake up with double vision or feel dizzy, or you may suddenly have an arm or leg that feels weak.

It doesn’t matter if the symptoms come and go — it’s still critical to call 911. TIAs are warning signs that you could be at risk for a severe stroke. Studies have shown that five percent of TIA patients have a stroke within 48 hours. 

Protecting patients and caregivers

The bottom line: Don’t hesitate to call 911 or go to the hospital if you’re experiencing a medical emergency, like a stroke. Hospitals and emergency rooms are taking critical steps to protect patients and caregivers from COVID-19, so you and your loved ones should feel safe when you seek care. Here at Providence, we:

  • Separate any patients with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms and treat them in a designated area. 
  • Screen everyone who comes into any of our hospitals, emergency rooms or clinics. 
  • Limit visitors to our facilities. 
  • Have the equipment and materials needed to treat COVID-19. 

We’ve also increased COVID-19 testing capacity at Providence and implemented a process to test and monitor any caregivers with COVID-19. Here are the seven safety steps we are taking to help keep you safe in our facilities.

Take steps to prevent stroke

While it’s crucial to seek immediate care for a stroke, there are many steps you can take to prevent them altogether. 

“Eighty percent of strokes are preventable if you know what the risk factors are,” Dr. Lowenkopf says. “If you work with your doctor and address those risks, you never have to have a stroke.”

Learn more about factors that increase your risk for stroke and how to reduce them.

If you need care, don’t delay. Learn more about your options.


Find a doctor

If you think you may be at risk for stroke, or want to learn more about reducing your risk, talk to a doctor. Providence’s heart and vascular specialists provide award-winning cardiovascular treatment. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory

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Related resources

Signs of stroke and actions you should take

Finding hope and purpose following a stroke

3 ways to lower blood pressure — beyond diet and exercise

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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