Advanced Technology Helps 19-Year-Old Recover from Massive Stroke

May 24, 2018 7:00 AM

How a leading-edge procedure known as endovascular thrombectomy resulted in a Michigan woman’s remarkable stroke recovery.

When 19-year-old Kristen Jeffries had a massive stroke while driving, she could have been severely disabled — or have died.

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But her perseverance and advancements in science came together for a positive outcome. 

Jeffries’ ordeal began on a cold January morning as she made her way to class at her community college. Jeffries remembers feeling a bit disoriented as she drove along the highway, eventually veering off the road and hitting a mile marker as she lost consciousness. She recalls going in and out of consciousness as she tried to grasp what was happening to her.

Unable to move her left leg and arm, sheer determination enabled Jeffries to drive her car to the next exit, where she stopped on the shoulder and put the car in park.

The Howell, Michigan, resident found her cellphone and called her mother, but her words were incomprehensible. When Jeffries’ father called minutes later, she was able to utter the highway exit number on a nearby sign. Fifteen minutes later, emergency responders were at her car door along with the familiar face of her father.

With stroke-like symptoms, Jeffries was rushed by ambulance to the nearby Michigan Medicine emergency room, where neurosurgeon Aditya S. Pandey, M.D., and the stroke team were assembled. The diagnosis was a massive ischemic stroke — a large portion of the right side of Jeffries’ brain was not getting blood or nutrients because of a major brain blood vessel that had been plugged by a blood clot.

An ischemic stroke is the most common form of stroke affecting nearly 1 million people in the United States each year. Symptoms of stroke often include drooping of the face, difficulty speaking and weakness or numbness of the arm or leg — all warranting a call to 911.

“Any combination of such symptoms may be found in patients suffering from an ischemic stroke,” says Pandey.

Removing the clot 

As Jeffries would discover later, she was brought to the right place for treatment. The University of Michigan is a designated Comprehensive Stroke Center providing the most advanced medical and surgical therapies available. In her case, endovascular thrombectomy, a minimally invasive surgical method to trap and remove debilitating blood clots with technology known as a stent retriever, would prove to be a lifesaver.

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The designation as a Comprehensive Stroke Center by the American Stroke Association and the Joint Commission is based on multidisciplinary expertise in treating all types and severities of ischemic and bleeding strokes and providing advanced imaging, treatment and recovery capabilities and facilities.

“Jeffries’ case is remarkable and extremely rare because she is so young,” says Pandey. “She was paralyzed on her left side and was unable to speak or understand due to a blood clot that was blocking the main blood vessel going to the right side of her brain.”

Pandey’s team immediately began preparing Jeffries for surgery and was successful in removing the clot soon after her arrival to the ED, which restored critical blood flow to the brain.

“An endovascular thrombectomy was performed while she was awake, and improvement in her condition could be appreciated within minutes of the procedure,” Pandey says.

The stroke’s cause

Although inconclusive, the cause of Jeffries’ stroke may have been a clot that originated in her heart due to a cardiomyopathy condition. As a 3-year-old, Jeffries was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Ewing sarcoma in her left chest wall. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments in 2003, which led to chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy.

“Cardiomyopathy prevents the heart from pumping with force, often leading to the formation of clots that can travel to the brain blood vessels and cause devastating strokes,” says Pandey.

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An endovascular thrombectomy involves inserting a catheter into an artery in the leg or arm, says Pandey.

“Through that, we thread another catheter up to the location of the clot. Then we pass a stent through the catheter into the clot. The stent ‘traps’ the clot, and the stent and clot are then pulled out together through the catheter.”

Jeffries remembers feeling better almost immediately after the procedure. “I could talk and move my left arm and leg again,” she says.

Although she will likely remain on blood thinners for the rest of her life, Jeffries is happy to get back to life as a teenager with a workout routine that includes running and strength training. Despite the derailment in her education, she’s also determined to get back to college, working toward a degree in psychology. 

Pandey credits the role of scientific advancements, including endovascular thrombectomy, in helping thousands of stroke patients like Jeffries live independent lives. In the past, he says, “Such strokes would have disabled patients for the remainder of their lives.”

Find out more about how leading technology is saving the lives of stroke patients.

Photographs by Leisa Thompson