SAN ANTONIO – Her chance of living was slim, but when a healthy 34-year-old had a massive stroke on Christmas Eve, strangers came to her rescue. Now, the woman and her doctor both call her full recovery a Christmas miracle.
A likely outcome was that Maria Juarez would probably never move her limbs or talk again. Yet, she's doing all of these things with ease and gratefulness.
"It was Christmas Eve around 10 in the morning. I felt dizzy and my hearing was a little gone, and so I laid down on the couch and that's when I started talking like this," Juarez said, drooping one side of her mouth. "I was trying to dial 9-1-1 but I kept dialing it 1-1-9."
Her husband was working and she was home alone with her 5, 3, and 1-year-old children. She thought of them and acted quickly.
"I got a hold of my mom and my mother actually called 911 for me because they couldn't understand my speech anymore," she said. "The firefighters watched my children while they took me to the hospital."
She was first taken for assessment at Northeast Baptist Hospital, but when they saw how severe her stroke was, she was rushed to a comprehensive stroke team at St. Luke's Baptist Hospital.
"She was progressing to brain death," said Juarez's neurosurgeon, Dr. Ramesh Grandhi, who works for both UT Health Science Center and St. Luke's Baptist.
Grandhi said her stroke score, which determines severity, was at the highest level.
"Her artery in the back of the brain called the baselar artery, there wasn't blood flowing in it."
In the very room where he saved Juarez's life, Grandhi explained how he sent wires through her vessels starting in her groin, all the way to her neck, eventually pulling out the entire clot.
"If she did not get the procedure done, she probably would have died by Christmas morning," he said.
Images of her procedure show where the clot was blocking blood flow to the rest of the brain. The shot taken after the procedure shows blood flow completely restored.
Within an hour, Juarez was almost fully functional. It was a shock to her whole medical team.
"They were like, 'Wow, you're blessed, you know that you're blessed. You're a Christmas miracle!'" Juarez said. "I'm just so grateful to the whole medical staff. I know Dr. Grandhi helped me. He saved my life."
Juarez got an MRI right after the procedure, which is the test run to see how much of the brain died from the blood clot being in the artery. That MRI showed there was barely any brain damage from her stroke. Juarez walked out of the hospital Thursday afternoon, but not before snapping a picture with her new hero, Dr. Grandhi.
"The coincidental thing is it happened on Christmas Eve and to see a mother of three, younger than yourself, it makes you feel like you did the right thing and your purpose in life was achieved," he said.
Juarez said she had no prior health conditions, and was generally healthy. Doctors have run tests to find out what may have caused the stroke in such an atypical patient.
"Typical risk factors that can cause clots to form are the same for heart attacks, so high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, drug abuse that can damage vessels, or an irregular heartbeat," Grandhi said.
Juarez will be making some small healthy lifestyle changes, and will take preventative medications such as Aspirin daily.
The doctor credited much of Juarez's success with early detection and action. He said with strokes, it's crucial to notice symptoms quickly and get to a hospital with a primary stroke center. He said to be prepared, know which hospitals have them, and which hospitals don't.
It's also crucial to know what stroke symptoms are. The American Stroke Association uses the term FAST, an easy way to remember sudden signs of a stroke.
"F" stands for face drooping. Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?
"A" stands for arm weakness. Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
"S" stands for speech difficulty. Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like "The sky is blue." Is the sentence repeated correctly?
"T" stands for time to call 911. If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you'll know when the first symptoms appeared.
"Any tingling, any sensation you know is not normal in your body, don't say, 'Maybe it will get better.' Call 9-1-1, call your doctor, get a family member to help you, because you never know. Time is precious," Juarez said.
For more information on strokes, click here.