Connie Williams, 72, had just driven back to Missoula after Christmas break and was waiting for her sorority students to come back to the University of Montana campus. Connie is the House Director for the Alpha Phi International Fraternity, and the women were slowly returning to their housing for Spring 2023 semester.
She was on her daily afternoon walk on the Kim Williams Trail along the Clark Fork River on a cold and windy January 15. It was especially frigid and blustery.
That’s the last thing she can remember for nearly six hours.
A Good Samaritan found Connie unconscious, slumped over a bike rack on campus parking lot and called 911. The ambulance crew activated the stroke team enroute to the hospital. In the Emergency Department at Providence St. Patrick Hospital the team was ready to move quickly. Emergency physician Dr. Doug Melzer and telestroke neurologist Dr. Kyle Ogami, located at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, found a blood clot in her brain—otherwise known as an ischemic stroke. The blood clot was preventing her brain from getting oxygen, and with each minute that passed, 1.9 million brain cells were dying. At this point, Connie could not move or recognize the left side of her body.
The team of doctors couldn’t convince Connie that she needed intervention to clear the blood clot. Her mother had died in 2008 from a brain bleed after a stroke, and Connie didn’t want to risk using thrombolytics, “clot-busting” drugs that break up and dissolve blood clots.
The next option—a procedure to take out the clot. In this case, it had to be performed immediately to return her independence and prevent life-threatening complications from occurring. Dr. Mark Elliott, an interventional radiologist, told Connie that she needed an endovascular thrombectomy.
Connie, not fully coherent, stood firm. No.
“If you don’t want to spend the next 10 years in a nursing home, you need a thrombectomy” said Dr. Elliott.
And then Connie said yes.
The clot retrieval team assembled in the Interventional Radiology Suite and Dr. Elliott performed a percutaneous mechanical thrombectomy, using continuous imaging scans to thread the catheter from the groin all the way to the brain to remove the blood clot.
The interventional radiologist team at St. Pat’s has been performing thrombectomies since 2011, and in 2022, they performed 41 procedures, saving many people from the detrimental results of ischemic stroke.
During recovery in the IR suite, the RN, Kelly Hiday performed a neurological assessment and determined Connie had completely recovered. Excited to see this recovery, Kelly ran to tell Dr. Elliott that she was awake and back to normal with no stroke symptoms. Connie was admitted to the ICU and had no complications. She went home the next day.
Since then, Connie has discovered she has atrial fibrillation (A-fib), which is also what her mother had. A-fib is a type of arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat. A normal, healthy heartbeat involves a regular contraction of the heart muscle. But in a person with A-fib, faulty electrical signals make the heart contract irregularly, leading blood to pool, which may lead to blood clots and strokes.
Connie, who had a career in journalism for 40 years in Washington, is astounded by the depth and quality of care here in Missoula. “The last time I was in the hospital was when I had my son by C-section in 1980,” Connie said. “It’s amazing to have the kind of medical expertise here in Missoula, Montana.”
“I’m so grateful to the person who found me and called 9-1-1. I hope to thank them, in person, someday soon.”
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