I Was 41 and Having a Stroke
When Jason Semmler’s eyes started watering during dinner, he didn’t think much of it – the idea he could be having a stroke didn’t even cross his mind.
He was too young for that.
But, as Jason’s symptoms started to worsen, with slurred speech and loss of movement on one side, his wife and friends knew something wasn’t right and took him to the hospital.
Jason was, in fact, having a stroke.
“I’m 41 years old, and to me, strokes happen to older people,” Jason said. “I realized that anything can happen to anybody at anytime. I was a pretty firm believer that I was still there and talking, so apparently, it wasn’t my time.”
Jason and his wife, Julie, were enjoying dinner with friends before Parkston’s homecoming game when his troubles started. They had planned to attend the game and were scheduled to volunteer.
“All of a sudden everybody was looking at me. I got up, but I couldn't stand.”
“My eyes started to water. I took off my glasses, and I'm rubbing my eyes, and then I couldn’t even get my glasses back on,” Jason recalled. “All of a sudden everybody was looking at me. I got up, but I couldn't stand. So, I got kind of panicky, and said, ‘Well, we'd better go to the doctor.’”
Within about five minutes his mannerisms changed drastically. By the time they left for the hospital, he could no longer walk or talk.
A second opinion
They took Jason to Avera St. Benedict Health Center in Parkston where they met the emergency team, including Dr. Jason Wickersham, a family practice physician on call that day.
With the use of eEmergency, Dr. Wickersham diagnosed the symptoms of stroke and alerted his family to treatment options. eEmergency is an Avera service that streams video feeds between rural hospitals and a hub in Sioux Falls, connecting local doctors with emergency physicians in real time.
In Jason’s case, the service connected him with a neurologist who provided a quick second opinion.
“Being as young as he was, it gets your brain going right away... this sure seems like a stroke. It can't be a stroke at his age. What am I missing?”
“Being as young as he was, it gets your brain going right away... this sure seems like a stroke. It can't be a stroke at his age. What am I missing?” Dr. Wickersham said. “Being in a small town, one of the great things about Avera’s eCARE is that extra backup you can call and get a second opinion.”
A tough decision
Jason’s stroke was caused by a blockage, making him a candidate for clot-busting medicine. This medicine must be administered within a certain time frame to be effective. Jason met the criteria because he arrived at the hospital right away, which often does not happen.
This medication also carried the risk of potentially deadly bleeding in the brain, yet Jason’s family had little time to decide.
“We were all on board that we wanted to give him this medicine because otherwise the outcome didn’t look so good,” Julie said. “Dr. Wickersham said that he probably would be in a wheelchair if he survived this stroke. My brother-in-law Tom finally said, ‘He wouldn't want to live this way. Let's try it.’”
Within minutes of receiving the medicine, Jason was talking and moving his arm. His first question? “Did we win the football game?” a sign to Julie that her husband was feeling better.
Jason was taken by Careflight to Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center in Sioux Falls, where Dr. Karen Garnaas, the neurologist who provided assistance through eEmergency, met them. Because of eEmergency, Dr. Garnaas and the Avera McKennan team knew what was happening when Jason arrived and didn’t have to ask Julie questions she had answered earlier in Parkston.
When Julie thinks back on the care Jason received at Avera, she remembers the Careflight pilot, who provided a memorable moment with a kind gesture. “When he heard that I was supposed to be helping at the football game, he flew me over the football field.”
‘It saved my life’
It was discovered that Jason’s stroke was caused by a birth defect called PFO, patent foramen ovale, which is a hole in his heart that did not close naturally as it normally does and allowed blood to escape and move to his brain. He later had the hole repaired at the Avera Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls.
Today, Jason is back to work and living life with few side effects, besides being at a loss for the right word at times.
“I know what the options are, you either could die, or you have to live the rest of your life in a state that you don’t want to be in. I guess my end result was textbook – the perfect ending to something that could have been very bad,” he said.
“I guess my end result was textbook – the perfect ending to something that could have been very bad.”
Jason believes Avera’s ability to provide fast treatment was crucial to his recovery.
“I really feel I’m here today, and I'm able to do everything I did prior to Sept. 30, because of their forethought to provide these services to rural South Dakota. It saved my life,” he said.
eEmergency connects 85 rural locations to a hub in Sioux Falls with the push of a button, linking the expertise of local doctors with the knowledge of specialists who are sometimes hundreds of miles away. This partnership allows for better outcomes for patients with trauma, stroke or other critical care issues.
In Jason’s case, having a neurologist as part of the conversation provided his family more detailed information about the risks of the clot-busting medicine, an issue Dr. Wickersham doesn’t work with every day.
“If you live out in the middle of nowhere or feel like you do, you're really not alone,” Dr. Wickersham said. “That specialist is just a push of a button away, and we can have that help ready. So, you're going to get good quality medical care, even in the rural areas, thanks to the eCARE services.”
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