AUGUSTA, GA (WFXG) - Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in Georgia, according to the Department of Health. Right here in Augusta, doctors from the Medical College of Georgia are saving patients at Augusta Health with an operation only offered one other place in the state.

It’s called a mechanical thrombectomy, and is only offered in around 150 hospitals nationwide. In the state of Georgia, the only other city to offer the procedure is Atlanta. Holly Barnes, stroke program manager at AU Health said, “We have a specialized lab, we have specialized physicians that do the procedure, and specially trained staff.” One of those staff is Dr. Dan-Victor Giurgiutiu, who is a Neurointerventional Neurologist at the Medical College of Georgia. He explained the procedure. "You go in there, take the clot out, blood flow is back and the person often comes back to normal,” he said.

Dr. Giurgiutiu has performed the procedure on over 300 patients. One of those is Sarah Smith, of Thompson. Smith said, “Without this procedure, I’d be a vegetable.” Smith suffered her stroke in October 2018. It was so severe that she did not even realize something was wrong. Smith’s friend and neighbor, Faye Greene, noticed symptoms over the phone. She said, “Her speech was just so slurred, and it sounded wacky like, you know chopping up, and I thought, 'what in the world is going on.”

Greene said she called Smith’s son, who quickly got to his mother’s house and was able to get EMS there. Smith said, “I said ‘What are you doing here?’ he said, ‘Momma you’re having a stroke.’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’ the EMTs said, 'Mrs. Sarah, you’re having a stroke.” Smith was rushed to University Hospital, and after an IV clot buster did not work, she was taken to AU Health for the mechanical thrombectomy. Dr. Giurgiutiu said, “This is a stroke where nine out of ten people are in a nursing home or they need 24/7 care if they can afford it at home.” Two days after the procedure, Smith was able to go home. She said, “They saved my life.” Greene added, “It was just a miracle that everything happened like it did.”

The procedure is done using a catheter. It starts in the femoral artery in the leg, and goes up through the aorta into the head. Dr. Giurgiutiu said, “You need to go to a center that does thrombectomies if you want to have the best chance of recovery.” He added that two times out of three, patients are back at home leading a normal life after having the procedure. Smith said, “I’m getting back to my normal routine, the best I can. Some things I’m limited to.”

Smith’s limitations are mostly in her garden. She says she has some trouble digging, and things like that. She also uses a walker when she’s outside or walking on uneven surfaces. For the most part, she is able to function exactly how she did before the stroke. Her doctor said, “What sets her apart is how lucky she was to benefit from this procedure hours out. A lot of folks come in three, four hours out, and their brain is no longer recoverable.” Dr. Giurgiutiu said that’s because Smith had a stroke that was slow progressing. He said that is not typically the case, and that’s why time is of the essence.

It’s important to know the signs and get someone to a hospital right away. An easy way to remember is to do it “FAST.” Barnes explained, “F stands for face, so if you see facial droop, one corner of the mouth may droop down. A stands for arm, so one arm may drift when they hold it out in front of them, some patients can’t move it at all. S stands for speech. The words can sound slurred, or they may not be able to speak at all. And T stands for time.”

The doctor reminded that strokes can happen to anyone, no matter how old. He said he’s performed the procedure on patients from age 31 to 96, but that strokes can even happen in children. He said being prepared and knowing hospitals offering mechanical thrombectomy could be the difference in life and death.

The next closest hospital offering the procedure is in Columbia, South Carolina. It is a recent addition to the hospital there.

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