The simple act of feeding the family cats suddenly became a struggle for Steve Benner, one Sunday morning in November 2014.
When the now-56-year-old Racine resident tried to open the bag of cat food, he dropped it. And when he tried to sweep up the contents, he noticed a strange numbing sensation in his arm.
“I thought maybe I was dreaming because it felt really weird,” said Benner.
Wondering if he wasn’t quite fully awake, he returned to the bedroom and tried to drink a glass of water, only to have it dribble down his face. When Benner’s wife, Steph, asked him a question, his response sounded like gibberish and — while he still wasn’t sure what was happening — Steph said she realized right away that her husband was having a stroke.
She called 911 and Steve was transported by ambulance to Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital on Spring Street around 7 a.m. By 12:10 p.m. that same day, he was recovering in Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Neurosciences Intensive Care Unit and beginning to speak. And by Wednesday, he was back home in Racine in time to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family.
“It was remarkable to me how fast everything came back for him,” Steph said.
Steve Benner’s rapid and complete recovery, from what doctors describe as a massive stroke, came as the result of a novel stroke therapy being used at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. Called a thrombectomy, the endovascular procedure allows doctors to remove a blood clot by sending a tiny device called a stent retriever through a patient’s blood vessels to the site of the blockage.
Dr. John Lynch, the interventional neurologist who performed the procedure on Benner, said he went in through an artery in Benner’s leg and used a very small catheter — about the size of a few human hairs — to send the stent retriever up into the patient’s brain.
This state-of-the-art procedure — made possible by recent advances in catheter and stent technology — makes it possible to retrieve a blood clot in a matter of minutes, rather than the hours it can take to dissolve a clot using more standard, pharmaceutical stroke therapy, such as IV tPA (intravenous, tissue-type plasminogen activator), Lynch explained.
“This is really a sea change in stroke therapy,” said Lynch, who is medical director of the Neurosciences Service Line at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin.
For Benner, the thrombectomy allowed blood flow to quickly be restored to the side of his brain being blocked by the clot, preventing what could have been devastating results to his physical and cognitive abilities.
“His stroke was massive at the front door and, with this acute stroke treatment, was reduced to a little dot of injury in the end,” said Dr. Diane Book, a neurologist and medical director of the Stroke Program at Froedtert.
A thrombectomy can be profoundly effective treatment in the right circumstances, Book said. And while it can be used for a variety of stroke patients, it can only be performed if a patient is seen quickly and if the right medical team is in place not only to perform the procedure, but to determine if the patient is a good candidate for it, she said.
The advanced stroke imaging methods used at Froedtert allowed doctors to better determine the timing of Benner’s stroke (which might have occurred in his sleep), and the stroke team’s 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week staffing enabled Benner to receive the treatment and care right away. Every hospital has some version of a stroke team, but not many have it staffed around the clock, Book said.
Benner — who had also suffered a previous, mini stroke several years earlier, for which he was being treated with blood thinners — also received another novel catheter therapy at Froedtert to repair a PFO (patent foraman ovale), or hole in his heart, after recovering from his stroke.
Doctors discovered the PFO when looking for the cause of Benner’s strokes, and Book said they think it is what allowed the clot to get to his brain. While the minimally invasive PFO closure procedure is still technically experimental and awaiting FDA approval, Froedtert has been performing it on a study basis and is optimistic about the results, Book said. The PFO closure trial will be presented at the International Stroke Conference in February, she said.
For Benner, both novel therapies were life-saving procedures that have left him and Steph feeling very grateful.
Looking back on the day of his massive stroke, Benner said he is still amazed at how quickly everything happened and how lucky he was that he suffered the stroke at home, rather than after leaving for the solo hunting trip he had planned the next day.
“When they told me what they were going to do, I couldn’t believe they could go in through an artery in my leg and send something up to my brain and heart,” he said. “It still almost doesn’t feel real, even though I know it is.”
So real, in fact, that it wasn’t long before Benner was back at work at Poclain Hydraulics in Sturtevant. And he spent the summer of 2015 playing softball and riding his Harley, much like he’d done for many years before.
This time, though, the father and grandfather did so with the realization that he almost didn’t make it back to the ball field, the open road or to spend time with his family.
“If I would have left Monday morning to go hunting and been out in the woods by myself when the stroke happened, who knows if I’d have been able to make it back to my truck,” Benner said.
And the Benners aren’t the only ones benefiting from such novel stroke treatment, according to doctors at Froedtert.
“This kind of remarkable recovery has become a normal expectation,” Lynch said. “We’re doing it here every single day.”
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