WASHINGTON — Former President Ford got lucky Wednesday: He survived a stroke, and one that occurred in a brain region where strokes are particularly dangerous.
Stroke is the nation's No. 3 killer, claiming 160,000 lives each year. More than 600,000 people will suffer a stroke this year. Some of the 4 million stroke survivors have fully recovered from their "brain attack"; others suffer permanent disability.
Too many victims don't realize stroke symptoms are an emergency and can be treated. Dial 911 or get to a hospital immediately if you have any of the warning signs:
Sudden numbness of weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
Sudden severe headache with no known cause, or trouble seeing.
Ford was "very lucky," said George Hademenos of the American Stroke Association.
Tuesday, Ford had appeared on television seeming confused and speaking slightly slurred. That night, he went to the hospital and doctors diagnosed a sinus infection. Only when Ford returned to the hospital Wednesday did doctors ultimately say he suffered one, perhaps two, small strokes in recent days — in the brainstem.
That brain region controls a lot of bodily functions. Usually, brainstem strokes are "very, very serious," Hademenos said.
But Ford's doctors insist his stroke was minor and that he is expected to fully recover.
However, survivors are at high risk of repeat strokes and typically take anticoagulant drugs like warfarin to lower that risk.
Experts say it sometimes is difficult to diagnose a small or early stage stroke.
"In many cases, the earliest events in a stroke can be very subtle and are often missed," said Dr. Gerald Fischbach, neurology chief at the National Institutes of Health.
"I can't tell you without more information whether there was a missed diagnosis," Fischbach cautioned.
Regardless, he stressed that people with stroke symptoms must seek care fast — and doctors should always to check for a stroke — because there are treatments.
In fact, patients themselves may not realize they're experiencing stroke symptoms and may need a friend or relative who recognizes something's wrong to seek care, added Dr. Thomas Brott of the National Stroke Association.
When describing the symptoms, it's not a bad idea to ask a doctor outright if it could be a stroke, he said.
A stroke is a lack of proper blood flow and oxygen that quickly kills delicate brain tissue.
Ford suffered the most common type, an ischemic stroke, caused by a blood clot in the brain. It sometimes is preceded by silent "mini-strokes," called "transient ischemic attacks," that produce reversible stroke-like symptoms when blood flow is only temporarily blocked. People who have had a mini-stroke are at very high risk of a full-blown stroke, so diagnosis is crucial.
For years, doctors couldn't treat stroke so patients weren't encouraged to race to the hospital. But now, if patients get clot-busting medication within three hours of an ischemic stroke's onset, they have a good chance at stemming or even reversing much of the damage.
Strokes also can be caused when a blood vessel abruptly bursts in the brain. These are called a hemorrhagic strokes, but they are rare.
Simply getting old is one of the biggest risks for stroke. Other risks include high blood pressure, smoking, heart disease, irregular heartbeat and diabetes.