Tonya Stephenson

Dr. Tonya Stephenson is a board-certified clinical neurologist with Gulf Coast Neurology Associates in Venice.

Up to 80 percent of strokes and heart attacks may be preventable through healthy lifestyle choices, according to the American Heart Association.

Dr. Tonya Stephenson, a board-certified clinical neurologist with Gulf Coast Neurology Associates in Venice, discusses the risk factors, signs and treatments for strokes.

Stephenson is on the medical staff at Venice Regional Bayfront Health and directs the hospital’s stroke team.

Can strokes really be prevented?

It’s true that most strokes are preventable because they result from conditions – like high blood pressure or plaque buildup in blood vessels – that can be avoided through proper diet and nutrition, exercise and not smoking.

What are the signs that someone may be having a stroke?

The most common symptoms are a drooping face, weakness or numbness in the arm, and difficulty speaking. If you see any of these signs or a combination of them, call 9-1-1. The Emergency Services team can perform initial diagnostics and if they believe it may be a stroke, the ambulance can get the patient to the hospital faster. EMS also can call ahead so the stroke team can be standing by when the patient arrives.

We’ve heard the saying “time is brain.” Can you explain that?

When a large blood vessel in the brain is obstructed by a clot, nearly two million neurons in the brain can die each minute. A delay in treatment can be fatal or dramatically affect a patient’s ability to recover. The more brain we can protect from harm, the better the chance for undamaged parts of the brain to take over functions of areas damaged by a clot.

How is Venice Regional qualified to care for stroke patients?

Venice Regional has received an advanced certification as a primary stroke center by The Joint Commission for 11 years in a row and has earned the highest possible rating from the American Heart Association for stroke care. Additionally, the hospital has interventional radiologists on call around the clock, which goes beyond the usual parameters for a primary stroke center.

How do you decide what care a stroke patient needs?

It’s a combination of symptoms and diagnostic imaging. Our hospital gets high marks for rapid imaging to diagnose strokes. We want to determine whether it’s a blood vessel blockage or a bleed. If it’s a blockage, the patient may qualify to receive a clot-busting drug, which can resolve the problem. Sometimes the blockage has to be surgically removed. The interventional radiologist will thread a catheter from the groin area to access the clot.

What happens after you stop the stroke with either the clot-busting drug or removing the clot?

Once the patient is stabilized, we look for the root cause of the stroke. This often means calling in the hospital’s heart team, who may find a structural problem with the heart or an irregular heartbeat, for example. Our heart team performs the same surgical procedures as large institutions, and many are done using minimally invasive techniques.

If someone has had a stroke, are they likely to have another in the future?

Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four people who have a stroke or heart attack will go on to have another. That’s where prevention comes in. Some patients may need to take medications like a blood thinner, aspirin or cholesterol-lowering medication. I urge patients to be proactive about regular medical checkups. And if someone suspects they have sleep apnea, they should ask their doctor about a sleep study. Sleep apnea increases risk for high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Untreated sleep apnea can even cause heart damage. Healthy lifestyle choices are key, especially not smoking, a diet low in saturated fats, and plenty of exercise.

What are the top three takeaways for stroke prevention and treatment?

Make healthy lifestyle choices. If you suspect stroke, dial 9-1-1. And, time is brain, so don’t delay.

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