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Why I'm walking at the Heart & Stroke Walk

February 24, 2016 | Dan Vitullo
Dan Vitullo

I’m a stroke survivor, and I’m here today to shout it to the world.

I’m walking in the annual Orange County Heart & Stroke Walk and Run because I’m proud to represent UCI Health and what the doctors and nurses there did for me.

And I want others to be aware of stroke and its symptoms and to know the importance of getting the right care, right away.

An explosion in my head

My stroke happened on Sept. 23, 2009 — coincidentally, it was my 20th wedding anniversary. It’s not how I planned to celebrate it!

I’m a maintenance painter at UCI Medical Center. That morning, as I was heading to the hospital cafeteria for breakfast, I felt a tingling coming from the right side of my neck, across my head and toward my left eye. Then there was an explosion inside my head. I collapsed.

Luckily for me, a nurse from the UCI Health Comprehensive Stroke & Cerebrovascular Center happened to be right there. He said that I was having either an aneurysm or a stroke, and we needed to get to the emergency room immediately. People ran to get a gurney and rushed me down the hallway and into the emergency room.

Clot-busting medicine

What I’ve learned since that day is this: With stroke, you have to act fast and skillfully. If you get to the hospital within three hours of the stroke, your doctor may give you tPA, a type of medicine to break up blood clots.

That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms and to get to a hospital like UCI Medical Center that is a designated stroke receiving center, with expertise in quickly diagnosing and treating stroke. (Not all hospitals are.) Patients with the type of stroke I had, who get tPA, are more likely to make a full recovery or have less disability than patients who don’t get the drug.

Inside the emergency room, I immediately underwent imaging tests to locate blockages or clots. I didn’t have any risk factors for a stroke — I’m not obese, I don’t have diabetes and I don’t smoke. But sure enough, they found a clot.

Sometime later, I woke up, surrounded by my mother, my brother and my wife. I asked, “What happened to me?” The interventional radiologist said, “You’ve suffered a stroke. You were given a drug called a clot buster. The best news is it worked. Your brain is in pristine condition. No damage whatsoever.”

Stokes can cause death or disability

I didn’t know what to think, but I felt relief, that’s for sure. Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and a main cause of major, long-term disability. Only 10 percent of stroke survivors recover fully. That’s why I say I was very blessed, very lucky. I certainly had some angel sitting on my shoulder.

Much later, the doctors figured out why I’d had a stroke in the first place. They found a hole in my heart, an opening that should have closed shortly after I was born. They fixed the problem by threading a catheter into my heart and sealing the hole.

Since my recovery, I’ll do whatever I can to promote stroke awareness and prevention. I’ve spoken to medical students, to show them what’s possible if the right steps are taken. I want to support research into treatment and recovery, so other stroke patients have a better future.

And I'm walking. 

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