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When a Stroke Becomes a "Miracle" 


When people think of miracles, they are usually referring to an occurrence so wonderful that words can not explain.  And for Martha Rotelli, the miracle began unexpectedly at a Madison bookstore back in January.

“I was standing looking at books and, all at once, I wondered what I put in my pocket because it was so heavy,” she says.  “I took my hand out of my pocket and realized three of my fingers were completely numb.  Once I realized the numbness wasn’t going away I went to a manager and requested an ambulance.  He asked what was wrong and I said, ‘I think I’m having a stroke.’”

Martha knew at the time the words she uttered were exactly what she needed to say, but to this day she’s still not sure exactly how she knew what was happening to her.

“I listen to my radio in the car all the time and they have these PSAs and I listen to all those things and I think that’s what told me the symptoms of stroke,” says Rotelli.

Thanks to her quick thinking, Martha arrived via ambulance at the Dean & St. Mary’s Stroke Center at St. Mary’s Hospital in less than an hour of the onset of her symptoms.  That’s important because drugs used to reverse the damage caused by stroke, in most cases, can only be administered within the first three hours after stroke symptoms start.  With these treatments, 50-70 percent of survivors are able to lead a normal life.  Up to 30 percent of people, however, are permanently disabled.

“A stroke means there’s an obstruction to the blood vessels going to the brain,” says Dr. Charles Miley, Medical Director of the Dean & St. Mary’s Stroke Center.  “Because blood is not able to flow, brain tissue is starved of oxygen and glucose and it becomes damaged.  That can lead to a loss of function, loss of movement in your arms and legs, or blurry vision and dizziness (?).”

Breast cancer may be most women’s number one health concern, but the reality is two times as many women die from stroke each year compared to breast cancer.  And a new study shows among people age 45-54, stroke is two to three times more common in females than in males.  This is particularly the case for women in this age group who are obese.

But nobody is immune.  In fact, stroke is the number three killer of all people in the U.S., and strikes more than 100,000 African Americans per year.  Of those who have and survive a stroke, about 40 percent will suffer another within 5 years. 

“In the 45-54 year old age group, strokes are generally pretty uncommon,” says Dr. Miley.  “But once you reach a certain age, nobody is immune from serious health problems.  It’s estimated as many as 80 percent of all strokes are preventable.  So you have to work on risk factors to prevent stroke.”

Risk factors include a family history of stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, being overweight and not exercising.  Additionally, in women, the risk for stroke increases for those who take birth control pills, are pregnant, use hormone replacement therapy, have high triglycerides or suffer from migraines.

Minimizing your risk factors is very important but so is recognizing and reacting to the signs and symptoms of stroke.

Martha was treated with interarterial TPA which is essentially an injection that dissolves the clot to open back up the artery.  It works best within the first three hours of stroke, with new research suggesting it may be able to be used up to 4.5 hours after the first signs.  The Dean & St. Mary’s Stroke Center also has a device called the Merci Retriever which is a mechanical means of removing a stroke.  It can be used when a clot is found in certain parts of the brain.  In some cases, a new treatment option called the Penumbra is used like a mini vacuum cleaner to suck out the clot.  But again, in order for any of these to be effective, it’s important for people to call 9-1-1 at the first signs of stroke.

“We know from experience people can and do live normal lives following a stroke,” says Dr. Miley.  “But I cannot stress how important it is to seek medical assistance right away.  Just a few hours of waiting can lead to permanent damage that cannot be reversed.”

It’s been a few months now since Martha Rotelli had her stroke and recovery is going well.  For the most part, feeling is back in her hand and the only real way to even tell she’s had a stroke is her minor memory lapses.

“My memory isn’t exactly right but I know how to get around that,” she jokes.  “I just laugh and tell people I forgot what I was going to say.”

Martha’s husband, Leo, says her positive attitude through all of this combined with following doctor’s orders have been the keys to her success.

“We kid one another a lot and you have to have that.  We have a lot of fun,” he says.

Martha agrees and says she’s thankful to everyone who helped make her treatment and recovery happen.  She hopes through sharing her story others who find themselves in the same situation will be able set recovery goals and achieve those goals using the same positive attitude she has.

“All in all, I know this happened and I don’t look at it as something bad that happened.  This was my miracle and we all deserve at least one,” she says.

And her words of advice to others?  Pay close attention to what your body is telling you.

“Most people are in denial when they have symptoms,” she says.  “It isn’t fine.  You have to pay attention to it.  And I think that’s what saved me.”


Signs You’re Having a Stroke

With stroke, time is of the essence.  Call 9-1-1 if you are having:

  • numbness or weakness in your face, arms or legs
  • sudden confusion or trouble seeing
  • difficulty walking
  • having a severe headache that comes on without warning

According to the National Stroke Association, women also can have unique symptoms of stroke including:

  • sudden face and limb pain
  • hiccups
  • nausea
  • general weakness
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heart beat

Did You Know?

May is Stroke Awareness Month.  Stroke is the number three killer in the U.S. causing the death of twice as many women each year compared to breast cancer.  Of those who survive one stroke, 40 percent will have another within the next five years.  It’s important to realize your risk factors and know the symptoms. 

Stroke Stats

  • Someone has a stroke in the U.S. every 45 seconds
  • Stroke is the number three killer in the U.S.
  • Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability
  • 14% of people who survive a stroke have another within one year

 Breakout: Risk Reduction

  • Control your blood pressure
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week
  • Keep diabetes under control


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