Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for doctors and hospitals to misdiagnose a stroke in a younger person. Many people think that strokes only happen to older people. In reality, doctors around the world treat otherwise healthy people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have had strokes, sometimes totally out-of-the-blue.
Misdiagnosis of stroke is a major medical malpractice problem that can have catastrophic consequences. In a landmark study in 2009, doctors found that young people who are having a stroke are misdiagnosed by emergency rooms 14 percent of the time. Such a misdiagnosis results in critical delay in treating stroke. As one of the authors of the study said, “early intervention is the most critical component of effective stroke care. A copy of the article can be found here.
Doctors have known for decades that stroke symptoms include, but are not limited to: sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; and/or sudden, severe headache with no known cause. When a patient has any of these symptoms, the must be carefully evaluated for a stroke.
Andrew Revkin, an avid blogger on the paths to a sustainable future, recently suffered one of these rare “brain attacks.” As he details in his blog, which now focuses on sustaining himself instead, Andrew’s stroke came with little warning and a great deal of uncertainties. While running on a hot July day, Andrew had trouble keeping up with his son’s pace and endurance – no surprise for a negligent exerciser running with his army-trained son. When Andrew called it quits on trying to keep up, the warning signs began to trickle in. First, the world appeared paisley through Andrew’s left eye. Luckily for Andrew, this was enough to prompt a trip to the emergency room, just to be safe. Next, Andrew began to notice more trouble with his sight, including clouded vision, little peripheral ability and different size pupils. Despite these warning signs, the hospital intended to release Andrew. That is when something Andrew’s doctor said months earlier came to his mind: you should have ultrasound scans of your carotid arteries to be sure there is no buildup of plaque. Little did Andrew know this would be the conversation that saved his life.
When the doctors agreed to make the scans, the warning signs continued. First, the technician could not find Andrew’s left internal carotid artery. Then, the doctor realized there was no flow in his carotid artery because the artery lining peeled away and blocked the vessel. Andrew and his doctors were puzzled over how that was possible when he was sitting there conscious and interacting.
The next day, the damage was done: Andrew suffered a stroke overnight. He awoke to a terrible headache and a throbbing left eye socket and realized that he could not move three fingers on his right hand. M.R.I. scans confirmed the damage from the stroke. The blog post can be found here.
The medical uncertainties and unanswered questions surrounding Andrew’s ordeal turned out to be warning signs that should have been treated as an emergency. If they had been, the stroke may have been averted. Andrew ended up being lucky, in the sense that he got himself to the hospital as soon as he noticed something was wrong. But for many others, the unknowns can lead to lifelong tragedy.
Over the years, I have handled a number of medical malpractice and wrongful death cases involving failure to timely diagnose and treat a stroke. These cases are complicated, but with a proper understanding of the medicine regarding strokes and knowledge of the standard of care in treating such strokes, it is possible to obtain compensation for victims of malpractice so that they can try to lead the best life that they can.