In the moments after his stroke, an incapacitated Martin Gordon was pale and tired. He had a blank stare.
His wife of 42 years, Kathy, and their daughter, Carissa, gathered in a room at Memorial Hospital, and in their shock, they wondered, hoped and prayed.
“He kept staring at our daughter, and I saw a tear coming out of his eye,’’ Kathy said. “And he kept staring and staring and staring at her. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking at that point. I didn’t know if his look was ‘I’m going to be OK,’ or ‘Don’t cry, I’ll be alright.’ He didn’t say anything but he must have stared at her for two minutes straight.’’
Kathy and Carissa each held a hand, leaned in close and Kathy, a retired nurse, asked: “Do you know we are here? If you do, can you squeeze our hands?’’
Martin has always had strong hands, a firm handshake honed from his days at IBM, and from 50 years of plucking the guitar, playing the classics: Mustang Sally, Every day I have the Blues, and Folsom Prison Blues.
On this day, though, Martin used all his might to let the girls he loves the most know that he was still theirs. Ever so gently, he squeezed their hands.
Stroke Team called to help
A Stroke Alert team – a multi-disciplinary team that included Dr. Janice Miller, a stroke neurologist; emergency room physicians, stroke-certified nurses, techs – responded immediately, as they always do when a patient with a stroke comes to Memorial.
“I don’t think Marty knew what was going on, but there were people flying around that room,’’ Kathy said. “One person started the IV, one person was doing this and that and another person was cutting his clothing. Everyone had a function.’’
A CT scan showed that Martin had a clot in a large vessel in his brain. The clot had formed in his heart and traveled to his brain. Martin received tPA, a clot-busting drug that when given within the first four hours after a stroke can reverse deficits like the inability to recognize people, immobility, loss of vision, aphasia and other symptoms.
Like a symphonic orchestra, each member of the team plays a part at the right time, in the right place. Dr. Daniel Huddle, an interventional neuroradiologist, used highly sophisticated imaging to look at the vessels in Martin’s brain to determine whether he could advance a catheter to the clot in Martin’s brain and use a suction device affixed to the catheter to extract the clot, much as cardiologists do when placing a stent in the heart to open an artery.
After reviewing the images of the brain, Dr. Huddle told the team that Martin could benefit from the interventional procedure. In the angiography suite, Dr. Huddle, assisted by another highly specialized physician, Dr. Shaye Moskowitz, an endovascular neurosurgeon, threaded a catheter into Martin’s brain and plucked out the clot, restoring blood flow to large and small vessels in his brain.
Dr. Huddle threaded a long catheter through the femoral artery and up into Martin’s brain. Once in place, it took less than two minutes to remove the clot with the tiny but life-saving suction tool. Martin had a large vessel occlusion, a clot that is more likely to cause lasting, life-changing damage if not treated quickly.
“I’m going to tell you, from the time I witnessed the stroke to the time they took the clot out, I’m going to say it was like 50 minutes,’’ Kathy said. “It wasn’t even an hour – it was seriously 50 minutes. It was amazing how fast. You couldn’t believe it. The teams that they have to do this, they were really prepared because they jumped right in.’’
The team took Martin to ICU, a place where loved ones, family, and friends, often agonize and wonder if the person they love will still be that person. Or would they be forever changed?
Kathy and Carissa and Martin are a close bunch. When Martin and Kathy married at the ages of 22 and 21, people said they wouldn’t make it together. But Martin started unloading trucks at IBM, and he worked his way up to project manager in the IT department. Kathy worked as a nurse, in the days when nurses wore white skirts, white shoes, and a white nurse’s hat. They earned college degrees. They had two children, Jennifer and Carissa, but Jennifer, a social worker, died the day after Christmas at the age of 26 in a fatal car accident.
From that day forward, Carissa wanted to do well for her sister, and she did more than that. She was part of the U.S. Olympic Team, a weightlifter who competed in the 2008 games in Beijing. Everyone in the family has an Olympic tattoo. Carissa’s mom and dad traveled all over the place for her, paying for travel and uniforms and training. She has always maintained that becoming an Olympian was a family effort, not an individual one.
As he lay in the ICU, Carissa could see the Olympic “We did it’’ tattoo written across his right forearm. She wanted nothing more than for her father to emerge with all his faculties fully intact – especially the music. If Martin couldn’t return to the West Side Rhythm Kings, his local blues band, and play the great songs again, that would be so hard.
ICU nurse Annie Collar-Maple, was one of the first ICU nurses to take care of him.
“I learned from the family that he loved live music and that he played the guitar, so I put Jazz music on – the new beds have music in them,’’ Collar-Maple said.
After a few hours in the ICU, Carissa drove to the family home in Security, Colorado, just south of Colorado Springs, and bounded into the basement, her father’s man cave, which holds multiple guitars, keyboards, and a drum set. There are posters of the Beatles, Muddy Waters – so many of the greats.
Carissa didn’t think she could get away with smuggling a guitar into the ICU, which is a quiet, sacred place. So she stuffed her dad’s ukulele into a non-descript bag and returned to Memorial Hospital.
It had been about 24 hours since the medical team from the Security Fire Department had brought Martin to the Emergency Department when Carissa returned to the ICU. Her dad was still rather groggy when she saw him again, but she placed the ukulele in his hands. Instinctively, Martin plucked out an old blues song.
“I was never so glad to hold anything in my life,’’ Martin said. “I was so glad that my fingers worked.’’
Dr. Chamisa MacIndoe, a neuro-intensivist who helped take care of Martin in the ICU, heard music coming from the room. At the same time, the nurses started calling for the doctor to come and see for herself.
When Dr. MacIndoe saw Martin playing the ukulele, it brought tears to her eyes. All of the effort to bring advanced comprehensive medicine to southern Colorado had paid off for the Memorial team. For innumerable hours, the multi-disciplinary team had prepared for this day via extensive training and collaboration of clinicians with a variety of expertise.
“Martin arrived here very sick with a significant stroke and other related complications. It meant so much to see him improve, and by the next day say: ‘I feel perfect,’ ’’ Dr. MacIndoe said.
“It takes a very large team to deliver this comprehensive care and each participant is essential,’’ she said. She said the team included the EMS team from the Security Fire Department that transported Martin, Emergency Department physicians, and nurses; the neurology and Stroke Team led by Dr. Miller; endovascular specialists Drs. Huddle and Moskowitz; anesthesiologists; cath lab RNs and techs; ICU nurses; pulmonologist Dr. Sanjay Ratnakant; neuro-intensivists, cardiology specialists Dr. J. Russell Strader; neuro floor nurses and physical, occupational and speech therapists.
After she watched Martin play the ukulele from his bed, Dr. Macindoe called Dr. Huddle on his cell phone: “Dan, you’re not going to believe what he is doing. He’s playing the ukulele.’’
During his time in the hospital, a cardiology team closely examined Martin.
“Mr. Gordon was found to have AFib (atrial fibrillation), which apparently was long-standing and otherwise undetected prior to his stroke,’’ Dr. Strader said. “It caused not only the blood clot that resulted in his stroke, but caused his heart muscle to weaken and put him in heart failure.
“We were able to get him on appropriate medications and get his Afib controlled, and he is also now enrolled in our Heart Failure Clinic program. We saw him in clinic a few weeks after his hospitalization and he reported feeling great, participating in cardiac rehab, and doing well overall,’’ Dr. Strader said.
Martin went home from Memorial seven days after the stroke. He still goes to outpatient cardiac rehabilitation to strengthen his body, but he has made a full recovery. He and Kathy and Carissa gathered around their dining room table to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends – a big bird and all the fixings.
Look for the West Side Rhythm Kings playing around town in Colorado Springs. Martin will be on the guitar. No doubt, he’ll play Mustang Sally, one of his favorites, because it will bring people to the dance floor.