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Rapid response by stroke team key to firefighter's recovery

Kelby Harrison

It was a typical trip to the YMCA for Sedgwick County Fire Department Capt. Kelby Harrison and his station mates: work out, then play a quick game of hoops. 

But everything changed as they walked back to their truck to return to the station.

“That’s when it hit me,” says the 51-year-old Kelby. “I kind of fell against the wall. My right side went numb and I couldn’t speak right.” His fellow firefighters — Cole Anderson and Jordan McKenzie — recognized the symptoms immediately. Kelby was having a stroke.

While one stayed with Kelby, the other radioed for an ambulance. At Ascension Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita, the Comprehensive Stroke Center’s team was awaiting his arrival. There, the team immediately arranged a CT scan of his brain, and within 30 minutes Kelby received the “clotbusting” drug tPA to dissolve it. When tPA is given within 4½ hours of the first stroke symptoms, it can restore blood flow and reduce the risk of permanent brain damage. But in Kelby’s case, tPA wasn’t enough. His sizeable clot would require surgical removal.

Kelby’s wife, Sharon, learned of his stroke from a fire department representative, who picked her up from home in Newton and drove her to the hospital. There, she said, “The doctors and hospital staff patiently prepared us for the worst-case scenario: that Kelby might have extensive brain damage. But they also said that every patient is different and that only time would tell.” 

Treatment in the nick of time

Kumar Reddy, MD, medical director of neurovascular and interventional radiology, carefully threaded a catheter through an artery in Kelby’s leg directly to the blockage in his brain. He was then able to break up and remove the clot. Patients are kept awake and calm during the painless procedure to better monitor their condition.

They saw results quickly. Despite some residual weakness and difficulty speaking, Kelby was able to move his previously paralyzed side.

“The next morning, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I got this,’” says Sharon of the physical recovery that lay ahead. Kelby had been a two-time high school state wrestling champion with a reputation as “the guy who couldn’t be taken down.”

Once the brain has been damaged, little can be done to repair it, says James Walker, MD, medical director of Via Christi’s neurocritical ICU. “That is why our goal is timely treatment to minimize the damage done, followed by early therapy to promote recovery and reduce disability,” Dr. Walker says. 

Kelby was out of the hospital in just two days, followed by several weeks of outpatient speech and physical therapy. Seven weeks after his stroke, he returned to work, “pretty much back to normal,” he says.

Kelby continues his followup care with Saad Kanaan, MD, medical director of Via Christi Comprehensive Stroke Center. Dr. Kanaan diagnosed the unusual cause of Kelby’s stroke as an inherited tendency toward “thick” blood that clots easily. Kelby now takes a blood thinner to prevent future strokes.

But Kelby and Sharon don’t worry about what’s ahead. They just feel blessed. “He got the care he needed in time. And with a stroke, timing is everything,” says Sharon. “Everything fell right into place, just the way God wanted it to.”

About Judy Conkling

Judy Conkling is a Wichita writer and editor with a deep interest in all things related to healthy living.