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2012 ISSUE 1

Teaching from Experience

After her own stroke, a physical therapist helps students recognize the danger signs.

When Betty MacNeill shares the story of her transient ischemic attack (TIA) with her physical therapy students, it puts a face to the textbook lessons and makes it all real.

“They are quite taken with the knowledge that one of their instructors has experienced what for them is a foreign concept,” she explains. “They’re in awe that someone can sit there and tell them this story.”

MacNeill, a 62-year-old mother of three, has been providing insight about stroke risk factors, impairments and physical therapy management at the Texas Woman’s University School of Physical Therapy for 39 years. MacNeill’s TIA occurred in June 2009 while she was sitting at the kitchen table after dinner one night. She had just reviewed the FAST acronym with her students: Face—does it droop? Arms—does one arm drift downward? Speech—slurred or strange? and Time—seek medical care immediately. With the signs of stroke fresh in her mind, MacNeill was quick to realize the abrupt numbness in her left arm and the one-sided smile looking back at her in the mirror were directly related to the lack of blood flow to her brain.

“My first thought was ‘could this be a stroke?’” says MacNeill. “I feel blessed to have known about FAST. I never imagined that I would one day apply this knowledge to myself.”

Her husband also knew exactly what to do—the oil consulting firm where he works held stroke and heart attack awareness training the week prior. The couple stayed calm and drove to St. Lukes Hospital in Sugar Land, TX in 10 minutes. MacNeill found comfort in knowing that she had a three-hour window to get the clot-reversing medication. There was never a moment of panic, she says.

Approximately 40 minutes after her first symptoms arrived, they began to disappear. Her face became symmetrical again, the sensation returned to her arm and her speech came back.

“I’m grateful to not have any permanent impact,” MacNeill says. Though her impairments were short-lived, the incident was quite a wake-up call. MacNeill had been on blood thinners due to atrial fibrillation, but her physician had recommended she stop taking them for two weeks before upcoming bunion surgery. On the seventh day, she had her TIA.

MacNeill now strives to live a healthy lifestyle and remain as stress-free as possible. She’s lost 40 pounds, has welcomed a new grandson and is looking forward to the birth of her daughter’s twins, her youngest daughter’s wedding, and her own retirement in 2012.

“All’s well that ends well and, fortunately, my story has a happy ending,” MacNeill says.

What are the symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA)?

Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg

Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding

Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

What causes TIA?

  • Low blood flow at a narrow part of a major artery carrying blood to the brain, such as the carotid artery
  • A blood clot in another part of the body (such as the heart) breaks off, travels to the brain, and blocks a blood vessel in the brain
  • Narrowing of the smaller blood vessels in the brain, blocking blood flow for a short period of time; usually caused by plaque (a fatty substance) buildup

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