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The Stroke Ambulance: An Innovation in Indiana and Possibly a Life Saver

There are only about 15 stroke ambulances in the country. The key innovation is a CT scanner.

INDIANAPOLIS--Indiana now has a stroke ambulance. It's operated by IU Health in the capital city, but if the program is successful, and it's proven that an ambulance that can take care of stroke patients and effectively begin treatment before they get to the hospital, there may be more.

The Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit should be operational by April.

What makes it a "stroke ambulance"

"The key innovation with this is that there's a CT scanner (CAT) on the ambulance," said Dr. Jason Mackey, a vascular neurologist with IU Health. "It allows us, in the field, to determine if somebody has had a stroke, what kind of stroke they've had, and if they've had the ischemic kind, then we can offer treatment in the field."

Mackey explained that an ischemic stroke is one of two kinds. Ischemic means a blood clot blocks a vessel and causes the stroke. The other kind involved bleeding on the brain.

"Witrh ischemic stroke, time is brain. With every minute that goes by there's a loss of 2 million neurons, on average," he said. That means brain damage and the possible loss of functions or paralysis.

Having a stroke

"Most of the time when the family calls in, they'll say I think so and so is having a stroke," said Judy Ayers, director of the Academic Health Center, Stroke Programs, at IU Health. She explained how the stroke ambulance will be dispatched.

"They (911 dispatchers) have algorithms they work through where if they said, oh well my dad-his face is drooping, he can't move his right side. Well then, that's also probably a stroke. They usually take the cues from the caller to 911 dispatch."

You might think it would cost more

She said that even though it might seem, with the CT scan equipment, that a ride in the stroke ambulance might cost more than a normal ambulance ride, "the goal we've been working towards is that this becomes our heart ER on wheels, so that the cost or charge difference is the same."

Ayers said the hospital is using a study to prove that the stroke ambulance is necessary and economical.

"The up front cost of this ambulance, as you might imagine, is pretty considerable. We were lucky to have our Methodist Health Foundation donate a significant amount of the money to get us started," said Ayers.

Mackey said if you think you or someone else near you is having a stroke, you should call 911 immediately, and starting in April, they will be able to send the stroke ambulance.

"Face drooping, arm weak, trouble speaking, please call 911 as quickly as possible, because time is brain," he said. "We want to be part of the group of pioneers that identifies that this is not only helpful to patients, but makes financial sense."

PHOTO: Chris Davis/Emmis

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