STORIES FROM THE HEART: Surviving stroke is a sprint for this marathon runner

By American Heart Association News

Last Memorial Day, Teri Ackerson finished a 6-mile run in preparation for her next marathon, went home for a shower, then visited a Starbucks for a latte with her teenage son, Parker.

Driving away, her grip on her coffee cup loosened as her left arm suddenly went numb. She felt the left side of her face droop down and she couldn’t speak.

“Mom,” Parker said, “I think you’re having a stroke.” Teri made sure to note the time. She wanted the medical team to know exactly when her symptoms began.

How did she know such a thing was important? Because Teri is a stroke coordinator for a hospital in the Kansas City area.


Teri’s experience helped her identify what was happening and remain calm enough to know what to do next.

What she needed was the drug tPA, a clot-busting agent that works to dissolve the clot and restore blood flow to the brain. The sooner it’s given, the better the chances of reducing the extent of damage caused by the stroke. And she knew a Primary Stroke Center was less than a mile away. She arrived within seven minutes of the onset of the symptoms. (Teri knows that 9-1-1 should be called whenever a stroke is suspected. Her case was a rare exception, as she knew what was happening and she was so close to quality care.)

“You lose about 2 million brain cells a minute when you have a stroke,” Teri said, “so you have to be treated as fast as you can to avoid serious disability.”

Stroke is the fourth-leading killer of Americans, and a leading cause of adult disability. Teri knows this, and is sharing her story in hopes of helping others. May is American Stroke Month, a great opportunity for the American Stroke Association to spread awareness that stroke is beatable, treatable and largely preventable. It’s also important for more people to be like Parker, and know how to recognize a stroke F.A.S.T.


After about six months of rehabilitation therapy, Teri has fully regained her arm movement, but still has a slight facial droop, the tell-tale sign that she had a stroke.

It turned out that she had another condition that actually caused the stroke – an undiagnosed hole in her heart, or patent foramen ovale (PFO). She underwent surgery in November to correct that.

“If I had not been treated at a Primary Stroke Center, I could have been much worse off,” Teri said.

Primary Stroke Centers are hospitals certified by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association and The Joint Commission as meeting specific best-practice, evidenced-based standards from scientific guidelines for delivering stroke care.

As a stroke coordinator at Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, Mo., Teri works with stroke patients on “teachable moments” that can help prevent a second stroke.

“Primary Stroke Centers not only treat quickly with tPA, but they also follow evidence-based research that helps to determine why you had a stroke in the first place, and report these findings,” she said.

Her own hospital is a Target: Stroke Gold-Plus award winner with the American Heart Association’s Get With the Guidelines quality improvement program.


Teri is running again. Only 26 days after her stroke, she ran her first marathon. She ran her first marathon since the heart procedure on April 27, completing the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. She hopes to run three marathons a year, and continues to volunteer with the American Heart Association as a member of the Kansas City Bi-State Stroke Consortium.

She also spoke to her local news media during World Stroke Day about the importance of recognizing stroke symptoms F.A.S.T. and became a Go Red For Women ambassador last fall. She spoke at a local Go Red For Women luncheon in April.

“To say you are a survivor is scary, but I have a new resolve now,” she said. “If I can help one person get to the hospital fast enough so they don’t have to go through long rehab or help prevent them from having another stroke, then I’m satisfied.

“Now I can look in my patient’s eyes when I hold their hand and see fear in their eyes and gently whisper to them, ‘I have been in this bed; it will get better.’ “That’s my reward.”

Photos courtesy of Teri Ackerson

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