By Kathy Engle, Vitals contributor
Christine Hiraki of San Mateo knows first-hand that when someone is having a stroke, you need to act fast. That is why, when she learned about the possibility of bringing a Mobile Stroke Unit to the community, she donated financially to help put the fastest stroke services possible on the road.
That came to fruition in 2018 when a Mobile Stroke Unit came to San Mateo County. Staffed by Sutter’s Mills-Peninsula Medical Center stroke teams, it provides an accelerated model of care that reduces disability by treating people who are having a stroke faster and more efficiently. Mills-Peninsula is the only hospital in Northern California with this service.
The Bay Area’s first Mobile Stroke Unit was just a dream when Hiraki’s mother had a stroke 10 years ago. Hiraki was at home in San Mateo with her parents when she noticed that her mother, Yoko, was unable to move her left hand and needed assistance walking to the bathroom. If it was a stroke, Hiraki knew she had to act fast. She and her dad drove Yoko straight to the Emergency Department at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in San Mateo.
“Everyone was so helpful, working quickly when we said we thought she was having a stroke,” Hiraki recalls.
They discovered that a blood vessel had burst and they were able to get the blood to clot, stopping the brain bleed. Hiraki was scared looking at the scans of her mom’s injury.
“However, I remember one of the caregivers say that even though this was serious, the brain and body have ways to heal, and that comment really helped to lower my own anxiety,” Hiraki says. “I was grateful.”
Hiraki also credits her mother’s recovery with small suggestions the care team made early on. They taught Yoko to practice manipulating her fingers, touching each one to her thumb. After several months of physical and occupational therapy, Yoko improved so much that signs of a stroke were barely perceptible.
“We laugh because she started walking so well that she became ineligible to renew her handicap placard,” Hiraki said.
When it comes to a stroke, time is of utmost importance. Brain cells begin to die quickly — at a rate of about 2 million per minute. Think of stroke as the brain’s version of a heart attack: The longer the brain goes without oxygen, the more damage the stoke can cause. So, for every hour a patient goes untreated, the brain ages 3.6 years in terms of loss of neuron function. That is why stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States, leaving many patients unable to walk, talk, eat or take care of themselves.
Hiraki had relied on knowing some of the key stroke symptoms to identify her mother’s stroke quickly and get her medical help. This is so important and why there is an ongoing awareness campaign to make sure everyone remembers the phrase: BE FAST (Balance, Eyes, Facial dropping, Arm weakness, Speech and Time). That same quick thinking Hiraki used can save others, too. As can the Mobile Stroke Unit.
In the years since her mother’s stroke, Hiraki has generously sent gifts supporting the Mobile Stroke Unit at Mills-Peninsula, and she encourages others to consider gifts of their own.
“It is truly a great cause if you can afford to do it and it helps improve an already high level of care in the community for stroke patients,” she said.
The Mobile Stroke Unit was funded entirely through community donors and a matching grant from Sutter Health, a not-for-profit healthcare network, and donations are still needed to keep it in the community. To assist in this effort, go to www.sutterhealth.org/mills/giving/mphf/mobile-stroke-unit.