Vita Ross of Middle Island starts every Monday and Wednesday the same.
At 9 a.m. she arrives at the place that saved her life, that makes waking up possible — Stony Brook University Hospital.
She heads to the hospital’s 19th floor and works her way down, updating and organizing all the informational forms on stroke awareness, services and and treatments along her way.
Her presence alone brings smiles across the hospital.
“The cardiac program saw what she was doing with the stroke awareness and they enlisted her to volunteer,” said Eileen Conlon, a registered nurse at Stony Brook.
“She is popular in the hospital; everyone wants her on their side.”
Ross began volunteering because of the treatment she had as a patient. Four years ago, she received a new procedure piloted by Stony Brook Medicine.
It started on a June evening when Ross was trying to enjoy some family time at a local diner. But as everyone ate, something was wrong. She was struggling to drink her coffee.
“I noticed I couldn’t pick up my cup without spilling it,” she recalled.
Her family later noticed the right side of her face beginning to droop.
At 56 years old, Ross was experiencing a hemorrhagic stroke, which is spontaneous bleeding of the brain.
After being rushed to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, she was immediately transferred to Stony Brook University Hospital.
At that time, Stony Brook had just rolled its new minimal evasive procedure for cerebral hemorrhaging by using a surgical device called the Apollo System.
“Instead of doing a big, open-brain surgery to resect the hemorrhage we are able to go through a very tiny burr hole and resect it with an endoscopic procedure,” described Dr. David Fiorella, currently the only doctor on Long Island trained on the Apollo.
After the operation, the doctor immediately saw improvements in Ross’s conditions.
“She started to get better — not at a daily basis but on an hourly basis,” said Fiorella, who is the co-director of Stony Brook’s Cerebrovascular and Stroke Center.
The positive results from the surgery helped break new ground for Stony Brook.
“With this procedure we gained a lot of experience and a lot of good results for something we didn’t have treatment for in the past,” said Fiorella.
Now that the technology is there, Fiorella said that next challenge has been raising awareness about it.
“People think you need to go to the Manhattan to get the best treatment,” he said. “But that is not the case. Here at Stony Brook, we are on the leading edge of developing many of these minimally invasive procedures that can treat what could be a devastating disease.”
But for any cardiac or stroke-related treatments, no matter how cutting edge, it’s always a race against the clock.
That’s the other side of the awareness coin.
According to Stony Brook Medicine, someone suffering from an ischemic stroke can lose millions of neurons per minute. And once part of the brain dies, it is irreversible.
“The issue now is EMS has to evolve to recognize these new therapies,” said Fiorella. “For the longest time, the idea behind stroke is to get the patient to the nearest hospital. Now things have changed. And every second matters.”
Stroke telltale signs include face drooping, arm numbness or weakness, slurred speech or difficulty speaking, and weak on one side.
Stony Brook’s Stroke Center finds about half of the patients it sees are coming too late and can’t receive the same treatments that Ross did.
“I just look at it as this is my new me and I can do it,” said Ross, who suffered a subsequent stroke in 2015. “I am just very thankful I made it here to Stony Brook.”
Top: Dr. David Fiorella with Vita Ross in Stony Brook Unversity Hospital last week. (Credit: Nicholas Esposito)