During one of the scariest times in their 43 years together, Bill and Sally Patton believed they were surrounded by angels.
Sally is an angel in her own right. She has dedicated her life to helping others as a social worker in both public health and child protective services in rural Saratoga, Wyoming. Bill grew up in Saratoga, and he met Sally, who was from Florida, in the 1970s while she was visiting the town on her “big lifetime adventure to the West.”
The two quickly fell for each other, and Sally never left. They’ve raised three kids in small-town Saratoga and would never dream of leaving their spot along the North Platte River.
“If you grow up here, you know you’ll have to go somewhere else if you need medical care,” Sally said.
On the day of his second stroke
On a warm July morning in 2021, Sally had gone out to run errands, and Bill was eating breakfast before he was to take a friend to the local airport, where she’d parked her plane while visiting the Pattons.
“I was doing the dishes and cleaning up when I went down on the floor,” Bill said. “I couldn’t figure out what the heck happened. I tried to get up but lay there for about 20 minutes when our friend came through the door and looked at me. She knew exactly what happened.”
Bill’s friend recognized the signs of a stroke. The acronym FAST is a helpful reminder of the symptoms of a stroke, which also include balance and vision issues.
Face: uneven or drooping smile.
Arm: one arm is weak.
Speech: slurred or jumbled speech
Time to call: Call 911 if you suspect any symptoms
Local police and emergency medical services arrived at Bill’s home and transported him to the small, local airport to await a medical helicopter. Sally and their friend were there too.
Sally felt she had to be strong for her husband, which meant making sure Bill went to the right place for his care.
“I pitched the biggest hissy fit on the tarmac,” Sally said.
The right place for stroke care
Sally knew there were limited options for her husband to receive a diagnosis and stroke treatment nearby.
She demanded her husband be flown to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies and medics quickly agreed. “The stars aligned,” Bill said, and everyone they met along the way was an “angel.”
Getting the proper care during a stroke
As a social worker, Sally knew of the high-quality care provided by Medical Center of the Rockies. She also knew of its reputation after Bill’s first stroke a year earlier. As a primary stroke center, the hospital must have an on-site neurologist and the highest standards of care and monitoring.
“If I were just starting my social work career, I would want to work for UCHealth,” Sally said. “It’s not about those buildings in either place (Medical Center of the Rockies and Poudre Valley Hospital). It’s about the people who work there.”
When Bill arrived by helicopter at Medical Center of the Rockies, Sally was waiting for him. She had hitched a ride from Saratoga in her friend’s plane to Northern Colorado Regional Airport, just down the road.
“Every single one of the staff, from the minute those bay doors opened, were amazing,” Sally said.
Stroke care at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies
There are two kinds of strokes, ischemic and hemorrhagic.
Bill had an ischemic stroke, meaning he had a blocked blood vessel. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel bursts.
In most cases of ischemic stroke, doctors consider giving the patient the clot-busting drug, tPA.
The drug must be administered within four and a half hours of a stroke, and the sooner the clot is broken up, the better the brain’s opportunity to recover.
Since Bill had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in February 2020, giving him tPA for his second stroke was too risky.
Recovering from an ischemic stroke
Despite not getting tPA, Bill started to regain muscle functions within a few days. By day four, his speech had returned. He still had a long journey ahead, and Sally said those “angels” were again at her husband’s side.
“The nurses and doctors changed my life when my husband couldn’t talk or move his right side in the first three days,” Sally said. “The way they explained everything to someone like me in crisis is such a gift.”
“When you live in a (rural) place like this, people don’t think they can get that level of care,” she said. “But (Medical Center of the Rockies) has that level of care, and when something intense happens, that’s where you want to be.”
Bill spent the next three days at the hospital growing stronger, then transferred to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital for inpatient rehabilitation.
“It was like being accepted into Harvard,” Sally said. “Because you must have a good prognosis to get accepted.”
Impatient rehab at Poudre Valley Hospital
Rehabilitation is hard work, but Bill comes from a family of athletes so his competitive nature came out.
“I couldn’t even walk when I got there, and they thought I’d leave in a wheelchair,” Bill said. “But I asked them to push me hard, and I got out of there a week early. I walked out of there, and the doctors were shaking their heads in disbelief.
“I have to brag about my care,” Bill said. “I was taught a lot, like I was a baby. I couldn’t bathe myself or brush my teeth. But I walked out of there, and they (his nurses and doctors) all came together to watch me go. I told them they were my true friends, and they shook my hand. It was very personal.
“The stars aligned from the moment I went down on that floor,” Bill said. “I was in the right spot, in the right time and got the right care.”
Stroke rehabilitation and treating Afib
At home, Bill continues to get stronger. He and his wife take daily walks along the river and relax in the town’s hot springs. He’s also had some major health decisions since he left rehab.
While recovering at Medical Center of the Rockies, Bill went into atrial fibrillation. Afib is a quivering or irregular heartbeat, also called arrhythmia, that can lead to blood clots, stroke and other heart-related complications. To Bill, Afib didn’t feel like anything, but doctors finally had the probable source for his stroke.
According to the American Heart Association, at least 2.7 million Americans live with Afib. And it causes about one in every seven strokes.
Treating Afib to decrease the risk of stroke
Symptoms of Afib include fatigue, dizziness or shortness of breath. Bill said he’d been feeling tired before the stroke. People with undiagnosed Afib often attribute the symptoms to aging.
Doctors don’t always immediately treat Afib. Doctors often monitor arrhythmia or prescribe medication to reduce or eliminate Afib.
In October 2021, three months after the stroke, Bill underwent electrical cardioversion, a procedure used to “shock” the heart back into normal rhythm. Within 48 hours, Bill was feeling better. But he wanted a longer-term solution. Two months later, doctors performed an ablation, a procedure that involves freezing or burning to cause scarring on the inside of the heart to disrupt faulty electrical signals that cause arrhythmia.
Bill soon returned to enjoying afternoons along the river and cutting wood, one of his favorite tasks. He remained on blood thinners, then learned there was an option to remedy that as well.
Undergoing The Watchman procedure for Afib
After a thorough assessment, Bill opted to receive The Watchman, a device implanted into the heart using a minimally invasive technique to block the left atrial appendage, the region of the heart where blood clots form from Afib. The procedure was done at Medical Center of the Rockies in April 2022.
Bill has follow-up care at Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, where UCHealth cardiologists are available to see patients four days a week.
Six months after his implant, Bill should be able to stop taking blood thinners. As an active 63-year-old whose favorite hobby involves swinging an ax and a golf club, Bill is excited not to worry about those risks.
Sally is too. She doesn’t want to worry something may happen every time she leaves her husband alone. She and Bill are content leading a less eventful life along their little river in their bucolic little town. And they’re thankful for the angels.