ROSWELL, Ga. — Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in Georgia, and the state is in a region called the “stroke belt,” identified based on high rates of stroke mortality.

But early treatment can prevent serious long-term effects, according to the Department of Public Health. North Fulton residents with brain and health concerns can now seek comprehensive stroke and aneurysm treatment close to home.

On Dec. 9, Wellstar North Fulton Hospital announced that it now offers the “highest level of services” to patients suffering from life-threatening or disability-causing blockages as well as weakened blood vessels in the brain. The Roswell hospital’s new specialized services include thrombectomies, aneurysm treatments and cerebral bypass procedures. The changes — from beginning to treat patients with cerebrovascular diseases to building and using a new state-of-the-art, hybrid neurovascular suite — have been rolled out progressively since August.

“According to our projections, North Fulton and our surrounding area expect a significant increase in stroke rates during the next five years,” said Jon-Paul Croom, president of Wellstar North Fulton Hospital and senior vice president of the Wellstar Health System. “Wellstar continues to enhance our service offerings to provide the highest level of care possible to the communities we serve. Offering advanced neuroendovascular services is one more example of how we are doing just that.”

To implement the comprehensive stroke and aneurysm services, Wellstar North Fulton Hospital built a new hybrid neurovascular suite — which allows surgeons to use both traditional surgery and minimally-invasive endovascular techniques — and prioritized the creation of a dedicated neuro-ICU to provide around-the-clock support for critically-ill neuro patients, said Benjamin Zussman, an endovascular-trained neurosurgeon at Wellstar North Fulton Hospital.

The hospital also recruited a team of neurosurgeons trained in cerebrovascular neurosurgery and endovascular neurosurgery, as well as nurses, technologists and support staff to carry out the newly-offered procedures.

One such procedure is a stroke thrombectomy, a surgical procedure to remove blood clots from arteries and veins. Thrombectomies are the preferred treatment for patients with acute stroke and blockage of a large vessel in the brain and are only offered at a “handful of hospitals in the nation,” Zussman said.

To perform a thrombectomy, a neurosurgeon introduces small catheters, or tubes, into a patient’s blood vessels. Using direct visualization provided by advanced imaging technology, the surgeon steers the tubes to the blockage in the neck or brain and can then physically remove the clot.

Cindy Mejia was one of the first patients to receive one of Wellstar North Fulton’s new stroke services. After a sudden stroke on Sept. 9, Zussman performed a cerebral angiogram potential thrombectomy on Mejia within 90 minutes of her leaving her home.

“Because of the quick intervention and the excellent surgeon and team, my brain was saved,” Mejia said. “I highly doubt that could have happened if the intervention had not been available and so quick. I was able to think, talk, understand everything and move all my limbs when I awoke at 2 p.m. I left the hospital two days later with no need for speech [therapy], physical therapy or occupational therapy.”

Mejia said she chose Wellstar North Fulton because of its proximity and feels fortunate that the new program existed when she had her stroke. Delay in transport to another facility, she said, could have cost valuable brain cells.

The other new treatments — aneurysm treatments and cerebral bypass procedures — are also highly specialized. Aneurysm treatment can stabilize bleeding aneurysms in the brain, and cerebral bypass procedures can reroute blood flow around damaged or blocked arteries.

The program’s success has been “dramatic,” Zussman said.

“We have patients who have come into the hospital unable to talk or understand, unable to move their face and body, who wake up after their emergency procedure feeling normal again,” Zussman said. “These patients would otherwise be totally incapacitated or would die. Instead, they get to go home and live their lives.”

Zussman and Mejia both emphasized the importance of watching for the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke and calling 911 immediately if they notice any warning signs.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zussman said that far fewer people are seeking care for heart attacks and strokes but that the hospital’s team knows that “people are still having heart attacks and strokes” and is still equipped — even more so now than ever — to treat them.

“It is critical to get help as soon as you have the first symptom,” Mejia said. “I did my part, and then Wellstar’s stroke team was able to do the rest.”

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