Before 2015, Tom Blackmore felt his luckiest moment was actually getting an interview for his very first job in advertising, despite sending the agency owner his wife’s nursing resume by mistake.
“Astonished by my stupidity, he actually gave me an interview,” he recalls. “I did well and got my first advertising job.”
Tom, 66, now considers that his second luckiest break, after what he and his stepmother, Rose, have gone through in the past year.
Recognizing the signs
Tom was at his Toronto home on Family Day last February, working at his computer, when his eye became irritated. When he went to the kitchen to wash his eyes he felt wobbly and unbalanced. At first he dismissed his symptoms as a flare-up from a recent squash injury. Ten minutes later he was lying on his bed paralyzed down his right side and unable to talk.
When his wife Jane came upstairs to ask what he wanted for lunch, and saw him in this state, she knew immediately that he was having a stroke. She had just seen a Heart and Stroke Foundation commercial describing the signs of stroke.
Jane called 9-1-1 – as the commercial urged. Within minutes he was in an ambulance, racing toward Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, which has specialized stroke services. Although Tom did not know what had happened to him, he did know all about strokes and the need for immediate care.
Just nine months earlier, Tom had hurried to the same emergency room when he got a call that his stepmother, Rose, had collapsed.
Doctors quickly diagnosed Rose with a major stroke; a clot was blocking blood flow to her brain. But they could not treat her with tPA – the clot-busting drug that might save her – because she was taking blood thinning medication.
With every second that passed, Rose’s brain was dying. If she survived, she’d be lucky to move, speak or do almost anything unassisted.
There was one other option – a clinical trial of a new procedure to physically remove the clot.
Tom signed the paperwork to allow the test surgery to happen.
Rose was soon undergoing a procedure called endovascular thrombectomy, which uses X-ray imaging to guide a thin tube with a wire in it through an artery in the groin area up to the brain, to pull out the clot.
Tom was with Rose when she woke up less than an hour afterwards. “She had some trouble remembering some words at first, but she was conversing,” he said. “As soon as she started to talk, I knew she was going to be okay".
A family in recovery
Now, the doctors who had saved Rose would attempt to do the same for Tom. As he prepared to undergo a CT scan, the possibility that he might never speak or move properly again really started to sink in.
“It was horrifying,” he recalls “My mind was perfect but I couldn’t do anything. My wife and two kids were with me in the emergency room. It was very upsetting for all of them to see me in that condition."
Doctors determined Tom could be treated with tPA. The drug must be administered within 4½ hours of the start of symptoms; thanks to Jane’s fast thinking, there was plenty of time.
The intravenous drug started working right away. While undergoing the CT scan, Tom’s right arm began to twitch. Soon enough, he could wiggle his toes and move his right leg. To test his speech, he tried singing “You Are My Sunshine,” a song he remembered from childhood. Every word came out crystal clear.
Tom now says it was the best song he had ever sung.
He returned home a couple of days later. Now that he’s fully recovered Tom remains focused on maintaining a healthy lifestyle; eating healthier and regularly working out at the gym.
A year into her recovery, Rose is also enjoying life after stroke. At 84, she’s regained her independence and is attending the ballet and her favourite operas again.
Both Rose and Tom owe their successful outcomes in large part to Heart and Stroke Foundation donors.
Without the Foundation’s campaign to publicize the word FAST as a simple way to remember the signs of stroke, Tom’s wife might not have recognized what was happening to him.
And the ESCAPE clinical trial that saved Rose’s life was supported with Foundation funding.
Says Tom: “I honestly feel that I am the luckiest person in Toronto… I’m very appreciative of my great fortune.
“I know people who have had a stroke and recovered… but not completely. And often that is because they were not able to get the right treatment in time to prevent permanent damage."
How we’re taking power away from stroke
The Heart and Stroke Foundation is promoting the acronym FAST as a simple way to help Canadians recognize the signs of stroke and take immediate and life-saving action:
The campaign is the result of years of Foundation work and collaboration between various partners and countries. Tom’s story shows that public service messages like FAST not only increase stroke awareness, in some cases, they can be lifesaving.
The ESCAPE trial is one of the biggest stroke breakthroughs in the last 20 years. Co-funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the trial results, published in early 2015. showed the new treatment model cut in half the death rate from major strokes caused by a blood clot, and reduced stroke-related disability.
The results are already changing the way major strokes are treated in Canada and beyond.
Most of the trial’s success is due to the use of advanced imaging technology, says Dr. Karl Boyle, neurologist and director of Sunnybrook Hospital’s stroke unit. Dr. Boyle oversaw treatment of both Tom and Rose Blackmore.
These scans give doctors a better idea of how much of the brain can be recovered. For patients like Rose, who experience a massive stroke, this breakthrough can mean the difference between life and death.