Robert “Jack” Woods II, 66, is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 170 pounds. He’d been eating a healthy diet. As a trim carpenter on commercial jobs, he was walking 9 to 11 miles a day, hiking up six flights of stairs at a job site and walking up and down 100-foot hallways, installing solid-core doors that are not easy to lift.
He was a healthy man. The last thing he expected was a stroke that would leave his left side numb and weak.
At 5 a.m. Sept. 26, Woods was getting ready for work when he dropped his electric toothbrush. He picked it up and dropped it again.
Then he dropped it a third time.
“I’m calling an ambulance,” his wife said. “You’re having a stroke.”
She might have saved his life.
At New Hanover Regional Medical Center, he met with Dr. Jeffrey Beecher, NHRMC’s Director of Cerebrovascular and Endovascular Neurosurgery. Dr. Beecher, working with Dr. Lance Lewis, cardiologist with NHRMC Physician Group – Cape Fear Heart Associates, later performed a remarkable procedure that cured the cause of Woods’ stroke.
Woods had suffered from a hemorrhagic stroke. His stroke was caused by an abnormal connection between his arteries, which carry blood away from the heart, and his veins, which carry blood back to the heart, called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).
The artery connects directly to the vein instead of through a network of capillaries where oxygen is transferred to the brain.
Dr. Beecher might normally treat it by running a catheter up the artery and blocking it with a special kind of glue.
“The glue almost flows like lava, and plugs up the artery,” Dr. Beecher said.
But in Woods’ case, the artery could not be blocked.
“It was an extremely small artery that was extremely important to keep open because it feeds the brainstem,” Beecher said. “I couldn’t dam that up because it would certainly cause a catastrophic stroke.”
During his training at Gates Vascular Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., Dr. Beecher learned a variety of techniques to treat extremely complicated blood vessel problems of the brain and spine. One of these methods allowed for treatment of the AVM by going through a patient’s veins. The technique is typically avoided because the natural flow of the patient’s blood moves the glue away from the AVM. Essentially it is trying to aim the glue upstream against a very strong current.
To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Beecher sought help from Dr. Lewis, the cardiologist, to use a temporary pacemaker to run the heart rate up to 200 beats per minute. At that speed, the heart can’t fill up before pumping, reducing the blood flow to the brain.
For periods of 30 to 60 seconds at a time, flow was reduced to almost no blood pressure, allowing Dr. Beecher to put the glue exactly where it needed to be.
“We were completely able to preserve that really important artery,” he said. “We did it right where the connection was,” where the artery and the vein came together.
Dr. Beecher said the procedure has never been done at NHRMC before. The procedure spared Woods from radiation treatment or very complex, deep brain surgery.
“We woke Jack up and he was completely neurologically intact, with no problems,” Dr. Beecher said. “I expect him to live the rest of his life without having to worry about this again.”
Woods had spent two weeks at New Hanover Regional’s Rehabilitation Hospital after his initial stroke, doing therapy three hours a day. But after the procedure, he went home the next day with limited restrictions on activity for just a couple days.
Woods was back on the job two weeks later, climbing those six flights of stairs and installing the solid-core doors.
“I plan on working until I’m 70 as long as God keeps me healthy and upright,” he said. “I enjoy my job.”
Signs of stroke
Strokes block or damage arteries in the brain or leading to it.
According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 800,000 people per year have a stroke in the United States and 140,000 die from it.
FAST is an easy way to remember signs of a stroke.
FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.