F.A.S.T. thinking

Thirteen months after her stroke, 47-year-old Kim Williams still has seemingly subtle difficulties doing some everyday tasks. After relearning how to write, she can quickly fatigue and not be able to write as well.

A 47-year-old North Charleston mother of two may owe her life, or least her quality of life, to knowing one acronym that should be etched on the minds of every American and certainly those who live in the Southeast’s “stroke belt.”

F.A.S.T.

F for “face drooping.”

A for “arm weakness.”

S for “speech difficulty.”

T for “time to call 911.”

The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association promotes the acronym, originally created in the United Kingdom to help emergency workers, to help the general public not only recognize when a stroke is occurring but to act quickly to minimize the damage.

On April 17, 2014, Kim Williams got up in the middle of the night, frustrated that she couldn’t sleep because she had an important meeting to make early in the morning.

She went down to the kitchen to get a bite to eat and saw that someone had left dishes in the sink. She started talking to herself about it and realized she was slurring her speech. She then went to the bathroom and saw that her face was drooping.

Williams, whose father had died from his second stroke in 2012, was familiar with F.A.S.T. and woke her husband, John, to take her to the hospital.

“Our first mistake was sitting there and talking about it a while,” says Williams.

But they got on the road and on the way to a local emergency room, the couple got pulled by a state trooper, who then found out what was happening and escorted them the rest of the way.

Once at the ER, staff focused more on Williams’ elevated heart rate and blood pressure than the possibility of a stroke, even though Williams also was experiencing weakness in her left arm and hand. A CT scan didn’t show she had experienced one, but the scans can miss detecting a stroke immediately following one.

Emergency staff continued to ignore the possibility, discussing with the couple that she may have Bell’s palsy and even had planned to release her at around 5:30 a.m.

John Williams refused to let that happen and a subsequent MRI detected that she had a stroke.

Kim Williams, who ended up being admitted to the hospital and being treated for days, now can’t fathom the possibility of what would have become of her if she had gone home that morning.

Neurologist Dr. Christine Holmstedt, co-director of the MUSC Health Comprehensive Stroke Center, says getting immediate medical attention is critical to minimizing the impact of a stroke.

“We only have about three hours to administer clot busting medications,” she says. “The faster we can get to the patient, the better people do and the less disabilities occur.”

She adds that stroke is the leading cause of disability in North America and can be a “life-changing event, much like a traumatic head injury.”

Despite the simplicity of F.A.S.T, the heart association says only eight percent of the population know what it stands for.

“I think we have to constantly remind people,” says Holmstedt.

Despite the value of the acronym, Holmstedt stressed that prevention is key and that 80 percent of strokes are preventable through lifestyle changes and health screenings.

She says eating a healthy diet rich in vegetables and lean protein and low in sodium, exercising routinely, not smoking and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes is key.

Kelly Masterson, a spokeswoman for the local chapter of the American Heart Association, says that the association focuses attention on strokes and the importance of early detection during the month of May, much like it does heart disease in September.

“Heart disease doesn’t overshadow stroke. Many people write off stroke as an elderly person disease. That’s not the case,” says Masterson.

“There is an alarming amount of people having a stroke at working age like Kim. ... Even though she was shocked to be experiencing a stroke at her young age, she recognized her symptoms from F.A.S.T. and sought medical attention. The more people who are F.A.S.T aware, the more lives we can save.”

She urges people to become aware of the symptoms and downloading a free app, “Spot a Stroke F.A.S.T” at StrokeAssociation.org.

Williams, who works as an office manager for the Department of Agriculture in North Charleston, says after the stroke, she could still walk and talk but that “my fine motor skills were shot.” She fatigued easily and struggled with her attention span.

She worked with an occupational therapist and literally had to learn how to write again, starting with practicing writing the alphabet like a kindergartner.

Along with her diligence to rebuild those neurological connections, Williams also focused on her lifestyle.

“I used to eat a lot of fast food and drink sodas, and I didn’t exercise regularly,” says the 5-foot-6 Williams, who weighed 173 at the time of the stroke.

Since then, she has lost 40 pounds by eating lean proteins and fresh vegetables and walking regularly.

“It’s been quite an eye-opening experiencing,” says Williams. “I thought I was too young to have a stroke, but it happened. I hope others realize that strokes can happen at any age.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.