Cold Medicine

Exploring a new, faster way to treat strokes—using hypothermia.

Art by Randall Nelson

The first symptoms may simply be nausea, sudden weakness, hiccups, or chest pain. Seemingly innocuous, these can be the first signs that a blood clot is preventing blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke. Welcome to the primary cause of death in Minnesota and the third leading cause of death in the United States. Fortunately, there are at least a dozen stroke centers located within the Twin Cities metro area, including North Memorial’s certified Stroke Center.

North Memorial was the first Minnesota hospital to be recognized and certified as a Primary Stroke Center. “The center is more than just a physical place,” says Dr. Irfan Altafullah, its director. “We developed a whole suite of services from the time a patient comes to the emergency room.” These efforts, he says, have improved how quickly patients are processed and how quickly they get the treatment they need. And when it comes to stroke patients, timing is everything.

The center also offers patients a separate unit so they can be around other stroke patients and, more importantly, cared for by nurses specifically trained in neurologic care in a neurologic ICU setting. The care team creates rehabilitation and care plans that reach well beyond the hospital stay and include a specialized program for families of stroke patients.

“Nurse educators inform patients, caregivers, and families about reducing the risk for future strokes,” Altafullah says, because recognizing the signs of stroke as they happen saves lives. So does changing lifestyle habits to prevent a stroke in the first place: don’t smoke; don’t eat foods high in sodium, sugar, trans fats, and cholesterol; and don’t skimp on regular exercise.

Beyond caring for current patients, Altafullah and his team are looking to the future. Knowing that rapid treatment of strokes saves lives and greatly reduces brain damage, the center is involved in clinical trials for using hypothermia to treat stroke victims. Hypothermia already is used as a treatment for cardiac arrest.

“We’ve known for a long time that hypothermia protects the brain,” Altafullah says. “We are testing the hypothesis that cooling the brain during a stroke will improve the outcome.” There are two ways to induce hypothermia in a patient: using cooling blankets (think the opposite of an electric blanket) to cool the skin, and injecting cool fluid into the veins to internally cool the body, preventing shivers that occur with external cooling. Either way, it’s a potential game-changer for future stroke victims.

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