Courtney Wilson’s life very nearly ended in 2013. She credits Dr. Jessica Lee and the stroke team at UK HealthCare with saving her.
The 30-year-old preschool teacher’s assistant from Russell County awoke one morning “feeling awful,” she said. She dropped her 2-year-old off at daycare and took her 5-year-old to school, then popped into the school nurse’s office for advice.
“All I could tell her was that I felt really bad and that my balance was off,” said Courtney. “The nurse drove me to the Emergency Room right away.”
At Russell County Hospital, emergency room doctors examined her carefully but could find no other symptoms to explain Courtney’s troubles. They consulted with Dr. Lee, director of UK HealthCare’s Stroke Center, who advised them to administer the clot-buster drug called TPA and send Courtney immediately to UK Chandler Hospital.
Lee and her team from UK’s Kentucky Neuroscience Institute were similarly confused by Courtney’s mysterious lack of neurological deficits. But Comprehensive Stroke Centers like the one at UK HealthCare follow specific procedures when evaluating possible stroke patients. So, as part of UK’s routine screening process, Lee ordered a CT angiogram, which provides doctors with images of the vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the brain.
“When we pulled her scan up on the screen, it was shocking news,” Lee says. “We were stunned.”
Courtney had a thrombus — a blood clot — in what’s called “the artery of life.” This artery is the superhighway of arteries, serving areas of the brain that control heartbeat and breathing. Courtney was on the precipice of a massive stroke.
“I literally ran to her hospital room,” remembers Lee, “and sure enough, she was deteriorating before my eyes. We absolutely scrambled from there.”
UK is fortunate to have a “dream team” trained to handle emergencies like this one. Dr. Abdulnasser Alhajeri is an interventional neuroradiologist — one of only about 300 in the U.S. — and Dr. Justin Fraser is an endovascular neurosurgeon. Both doctors are able to navigate tools such as tiny catheters, wires and other devices through blood vessels to diagnose and treat illnesses of the spinal cord and brain — also known as the central nervous system. Because this requires only a tiny incision in the groin instead of the larger incision necessary for open surgery, hospital stays and recovery times are faster, complications are less likely, and patients can return home to their families more quickly.
But, in what Lee describes as “the perfect storm,” both Drs. Fraser and Alhajeri were in other operating rooms on separate cases.
Time for Plan B.
Lee assembled a second surgical team to perform the preliminary phases of the procedure. “I didn’t even wait for transport to come get Courtney,” says Lee. “Our Stroke Unit senior staff and I took her to the surgical suite ourselves.”
Then, as if choreographed, Dr. Alhajeri stepped from one room to the next and began to work on Courtney. Using high-tech precision imaging to watch its progress, Alhajeri positioned the catheter in Courtney’s brain, attached a large syringe-like device and sucked the clot out, reopening the vessel in just 15 minutes. “It was like watching the pneumatic tube at the bank drive-in,” said Dr. Lee. “Whoosh! It was gone.”
“Courtney is a lucky young woman for many reasons,” says Alhajeri. “The doctor in the Russell County Hospital ER had the foresight to call our stroke team despite Courtney’s lack of major symptoms. The TPA they gave her delayed her decline and bought us some time to perform the thrombectomy.”
“She is also fortunate that UK has the resources to treat her. The next closest center that might have been able to treat her was an additional 90 minutes away. She didn’t have 90 minutes to spare.”
Since her illness has an 80-90 percent mortality rate, the mere fact that Courtney is alive today is a wonder. But the best part?
“The very few who survive this devastating event typically are left with substantial impairments, such as vision problems, the inability to speak or swallow, or complete paralysis,” says Lee. “But Courtney’s only residual deficit is some double vision on her far left gaze. We’re truly thrilled with her outcome.”
After Courtney’s close call, the Wilsons brought son Jaylynn into their family through adoption.
And now, just three years later, Courtney has yet another reason to feel blessed. On Sept. 1 of this year, she gave birth to a baby girl, who came into the world measuring 6 pounds, 11 ounces and 19.5 inches long.
Her name? Carlee.
“We are forever grateful for Dr. Lee and her medical staff,” wrote Courtney and her husband, Paul. “We wanted to honor her by naming our daughter Carlee.”