Houston's first mobile stroke unit now helping local patients

Minutes matter when it comes to getting treatment for a stroke. 

UT Health realizes this and created the first mobile stroke unit in the country. It helped a young dad!

Stuart Hepler has a lot to live for: a loving wife, a beloved son, a great job. That's all he could think about, when he was lying on the ground at work, confused about what was happening to his body.

"I started feeling really under the weather really quick, I knew something was wrong. I could hear a ringing in the back of my head, sort of, incapacitating almost," describes Stuart.

His boss immediately called 911 and Houston's first mobile stroke unit raced to the rescue.

"Things are a little hazy, but I remember them saying that I might be having a stroke, which was pretty shocking to me. I'm relatively young and healthy with an active lifestyle," says Stuart.

The mobile stroke unit offers telemedicine with a neurologist!

"I had a live feed with a doctor at the time, who was talking to me and the people who were taking care of me, and explaining that they were going to do a mobile scan, a CT scan in back of the ambulance, which is pretty incredible! They saw that I had a clot in my neck. Part of it had broken off and gone up to my brain, causing me to have a stroke," explains Stuart.

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All of that was found under the instant care of a doctor and imaging in the ambulance, typically reserved for the emergency room. Stuart instantly received a clot-busting medication called TPA, on his way to the hospital. All of this is a huge advancement to prevent major brain damage and debilitating side effects.

"With Stuart, you see how much less disability he has. He doesn't have to have a caregiver, he doesn't have to have re-hospitalizations and things like that, that cost the health care system," states Dr. James Grotta, Director of UTHealth's Mobile Stroke Unit. Dr. Grotta is also a neurologist with Memorial Hermann-TMC.

A new article in the New England Journal of Medicine highlights the work that UTHealth is doing through its mobile unit, as a wave of the future. It reports ischemic stroke patients received faster treatment and that led to less disability, but more units are needed.

"We have one. There are 21 mobile stroke units around the country, 21 programs, we're the first. There's another one in El Paso, that's the only other one in Texas. But, there are very few," says Dr. Grotta.

He says Houston really needs four but they're expensive, and the money would need to come from grants and donations. He hopes Medicare will get on board and understand the downstream of expenses. While the actual unit and staff are expensive, it will diminish a plethora of costs in rehabilitation after a stroke.      

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Stuart's relieved he got quick care from it, sparing him any major neurological setbacks. He did go on to have another stroke in the hospital that led to emergency surgery to have stents placed in his neck. Stuart still can't believe this happened to him while in his 30s.

Dr. Grotta says most people believe strokes only happen, at an older age.

"Obviously they are more common in older people, but they can occur in young people, so if stroke symptoms occur even in a younger individual, you need to call 911. It can occur to anybody at any age," explains Dr. Grotta.

Dr. Grotta wants others to have a good outcome, like Stuart, so act FAST and know the warning signs:

Face drooping

Arm weakness in one arm

Speech difficulty

Time to call 9-1-1.

Click here for more information.