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Published on May 05, 2016

Medical Student Beats the Odds after Devastating Stroke

Stroke patient returns to University Hospital to thank care team for saving her life

  • Stroke Patient Visit
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  • Stroke Patient
  • Stroke Patient
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For 26-year-old medical student Sydney Priest, Jan. 26 started out like any other day. She had finished morning classes at the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine and was relaxing alone in her apartment. Hours later, Priest found herself in a neuroangiography suite at University Hospital in Columbia, Missouri, undergoing life-saving measures for a rare and devastating form of stroke.

“My day was completely normal, just like any other day at school,” Priest said. “All of a sudden, I felt dizzy, couldn’t speak, began to vomit and I lost control of the right side of my body. We hadn’t gotten to the lecture on stroke symptoms in class yet, so I had no idea what was going on.”

A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is interrupted or drastically reduced, depriving the brain of oxygen and nutrients. The longer a stroke goes untreated, the greater the potential for brain damage and disability.

Priest experienced a basilar artery occlusion, the worst kind of ischemic stroke. This type of stroke accounts for about 3 percent of all strokes caused by a blockage. The clot was located near her brainstem, a critical area of the brain responsible for controlling cranial nerves, awareness, respiratory function and muscle strength. The mortality rate for an acute basal stroke is between 80 and 90 percent.

Priest was found unresponsive in her apartment and was taken by ambulance to nearby Northeast Regional Medical Center in Kirksville. Because she required a higher level of care, Priest was flown to University Hospital’s Level I stroke center in Columbia.

Priest’s stroke occurred sometime between 1 and 8 p.m. Because the time of the onset of symptoms was unknown, she was not eligible for the clot-busting medication known as tPA, which must be administered within four and a half hours of a stroke. Vikas Gupta, MD, a University of Missouri Health Care neurointerventionalist, performed a catheter-based procedure to remove a large, 3-centimeter blood clot in the back of Priest’s brain.

“It is rare for us to see these kinds of strokes, especially in patients as young as Sydney,” Gupta said. “When we do see these strokes, the damage often is severe and widespread. However, Sydney’s resiliency surprised us all. Once we removed the clot, she began to regain normal blood flow to her brainstem, and her condition gradually improved. Her recovery has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

Priest spent two weeks in the neurosciences intensive care unit at University Hospital before starting rehabilitation closer to home in Kansas City. She was born with a congenital heart blockage and wears a pacemaker. Because of her heart condition, Priest planned to specialize in pediatric cardiology. When she returns to medical school in the fall, she now intends to pursue a career in rehabilitation.

“This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Gupta said. “I think Sydney could be an inspiration for a generation of medical students and physicians. She not only survived, but she has recovered so well. She inspired me, and I know her story will continue to inspire others.”

When Priest returns to visit her life-saving team for the first time, it will be to keep a promise.

“Sydney promised her care team that she would come back and walk down the hallways of this hospital,” said her father, Chuck Driskell. “I am so thankful to the team at MU Health Care that she’s able to make good on that promise.”

As part of American Stroke Month in May, MU Health Care stroke specialists are raising awareness of the symptoms of stroke. Time lost can mean brain lost, which is why Gupta recommends a F.A.S.T. response:

  • F for facial droop — Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile and note if the smile is uneven.
  • A for arm weakness — Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to lift both arms and note if one arm drifts back down.
  • S for speech difficulty — Slurred speech can indicate a possible stroke. Ask the person to say a simple sentence, such as “The grass is green.”
  • T for time to call 911 — If someone is exhibiting symptoms consistent with a stroke, even if the symptoms should stop, call 911 to get emergency assistance immediately. Be sure to note the time symptoms began.

As a Level I primary stroke center, MU Health Care has expert caregivers in all areas of advanced stroke care, including diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, education and research. For more information, please visit