Stroke Patient May Have Been Saved By NPR Story

When a Los Angeles physician found out his sister in Chicago was having a stroke, he rushed to be with her. But not before accessing an NPR story his wife had heard about a drug called TPA that can sometimes stop a stroke in its tracks. On his way to the airport, he contacted his sister's doctors and asked them to give her the drug.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Last Monday, we brought you the story of Beverly Sylvia who had a stroke at the age of 49. She made a complete recovery after getting a clot-bursting drug called TPA.

Ms. BEVERLY SYLVIA: I was like, wow, I can talk. And that's a good thing. And I'm saying to myself, wow, if it's that medicine, it really worked.

MONTAGNE: A number of listeners had a strong reaction to that story, and some of them were quite personal. One comment on our Web site stood out. Ed Hastings of San Francisco wrote: This story literally saved my sister-in-law's life. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We asked NPR's Richard Knox, who did the story, to find out more.

RICHARD KNOX: Well, as much as I'd like to take credit for saving someone's life, that would be a stretch. Here's what happened. Someone in the Hastings' family heard our story on the day Tonya Gill, the sister-in-law, had a stroke. She's 39 and lives in Chicago. She was at Nordstrom's when it happened, slumped on a couch in the ladies lounge.

Gill's brother, Joe Hastings, happens to be a doctor. He lives 1,800 miles away in Los Angeles. When he got word of his sister's stroke, his wife said, wow, that sounds just like a story I heard this morning on NPR. Hastings pulled out his iPhone.

Dr. JOE HASTINGS: We have the app where you press the button and it brings up all the stories of the day and then you can either read them or listen to them. So we tracked down your story and listened to it. And then it also has a button where you can email it to anyone, which we did.

KNOX: Soon the family in Chicago all had the story. Meanwhile, Hastings packed his bag and dashed to catch a flight to be with his sister. On his way to the airport he called the emergency room in Chicago and got a doctor who was treating her. They were already talking about giving her the drug TPA. It has to be given within a few hours after stroke symptoms start.

Dr. HASTINGS: So when I got on the phone with the doctors they started explaining and going into all the details and the medical, legal issues. And I said, please, just give it now.

KNOX: They did, and Gill made a complete recovery. She says she might well have gotten the drug anyway, but having her doctor brother give his strong endorsement probably moved things along faster.

Ms. TONYA GILL: For a bad thing to happen, everything happened as it should, so that I could have a recovery. You know, my mom acting quickly, the hospital acting quickly. Being so close to the hospital. So feeling very, very fortunate.

KNOX: Joe Hastings says it helped his family to hear our story about another woman's successful treatment.

Dr. HASTINGS: As my mom said, to know that someone has walked down almost that exact same road before and had done so well was really encouraging.

KNOX: But not everybody liked our story. Several emergency room physicians say we gave short shrift to the controversy over TPA. David Wert says the question of which patients benefit from this costly and very dangerous treatment is hotly debated. And the story barely mentioned this controversy. Patricia Cox, a physician at a stroke center, says this story makes it sounds like a miracle drug, which isn't supported by the data.

The critics have a point. TPA doesn't help everybody and it is potentially dangerous. Studies show around a third of patients who get it right away have a total recovery or major improvement. The drug is federally approved and promoted by major health groups and state governments, but in about one in 100 cases it causes disabling or fatal brain hemorrhage. So there is controversy.

I asked Joe Hastings if he thought TPA should get the credit for his sister's recovery.

Dr. HASTINGS: You know, it's something that we'll never know for sure. I personally think it helped her and I can say with certainty, though, that it didn't hurt her.

KNOX: Another thing the family says is certain is how instant communication was a theme in this story. How Joe Hastings called up NPR's story and read studies on TPA on his phone. And how Tonya Gill texted her husband's relatives in India from her hospital bed on the night of her stroke, saying, Don't worry. I'm fine.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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