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James Woods Directs Stroke Awareness

James Woods hopes to save lives by raising stroke awareness.
(Photo credit: Onda'ray)
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

"My step father was having a mitral valve replacement, which is open heart surgery, and evidently a piece of the aorta broke off and he had a stroke during the surgery," Woods says. "He spent the next eight months of his life struggling to recover but eventually died of it. That was definitely on my mind when I was directing this PSA for stroke awareness. I told the crew that we could actually save somebody's life."

"I was amazed by how many people had had an intimate or near intimate experience with stroke," adds the Emmy Award-winning Woods. "It's a silent killer stalking amongst us. Most people obviously know what a heart attack is.  And a lot know that high blood pressure is very dangerous. But stroke is something most people don't pay attention to."

In fact, a recent survey conducted by the American Stroke Association revealed that only 2% of American adults lists stroke as the disease concerning them most. And half of all adults do not believe they are even at risk for stroke which cuts off blood and oxygen to the brain cells.

"So many people think stroke is for someone like Kirk Douglas - an older man," Woods says. "And that it can't happen to them. But stroke can strike anyone."

And all too often does.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in America. Approximately 700,000 Americans have new or recurrent strokes each year. And the disease claims over 168,000 victims of all ages, including children. Over two times the number of women will die from stroke than will die of breast cancer. And African American men have among the highest risk for stroke.

According to the American Heart Association, stroke costs the US economy over $51 billion per year in direct medical costs. Yet despite this enormous cost, only one percent of the NIH budget is devoted to stroke.

'I am a stroke'

In order get America's attention, Woods enlisted five of Hollywood's brightest stars to illuminate the character of a stroke. Sponsored by the Advertising Council and the American Stroke Association, the PSAs feature Sharon Stone, Penny Marshall, Don Rickles, Patrick Dempsey and Michael Clarke Duncan. The PSAs are being aired throughout May which is American Stroke Month.

"The trick of the spots is these stars are actually playing strokes - we have a twisted expectation of them as the iconographic movie stars that they are," Woods explains. "They start with 'there's something about me you should know' and then you realize they're personifying the stroke. And with a stroke you have no time to lose - which is the point of the campaign. You need to call 911 immediately because time lost is brain lost."

The most powerful of the five spots is undoubtedly Sharon Stone, who after experiencing a crippling headache in September of 2001, was admitted to a hospital and treated for a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) - a bleeding into an area between her brain and the middle membrane that covers it.

"On the first take, when she said, 'I am a stroke' her voice cracked and she started to cry because it had this impact," says Woods, who began acting while a political science major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It was so emotionally powerful. It's a stunning performance where you know she is digging deep into something that is very real and very powerful."

Woods says he asked Stone what her experience was like.

"She said, 'It's an enormously overwhelming sense of emptiness where you can see life around you but like in a bad dream you can't reach out to it. You feel like you're dropping into a dark black hole.'"

Stroke awareness

There are two major types of strokes - ischemic and hemorrhagic.  Eighty-five percent of strokes are ischemic, meaning the blood vessel becomes blocked or closed off. The remaining 15% of strokes are hemorrhagic or bleeding. Warning signs or symptoms for stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, often 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.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

It is the abrupt onset of these symptoms that may indicate that a stroke is happening.

"Sharon told me she turned to Phil [her husband] and said, 'I think I've just had a stroke' but still, if I remember correctly, she took more time and didn't call 911 for a while. She knew something had happened. She just wasn't sure what."

According to experts, the best strategy when stroke occurs is to call 911 and get to an emergency room immediately.

"The most important concept is that stroke is both preventable and treatable," says Dr. Larry Goldstein, professor of medicine and Director of the Stroke Center at Duke University. "All too often, people sit around thinking that symptoms will go away by themselves. Sometimes symptoms can come and go and far too frequently people think the symptoms aren't going to come back.  When this happens, we've lost an opportunity to save someone's brain and perhaps their life."

"If people get to the emergency room within one or two hours of the onset of an ischemic stroke," Goldstein adds, "they may be candidates for the one medical intervention that has been shown to be of benefit and that's thrombolysis with a clot-busting drug."

And there is other help.

Studies are now underway comparing carotid endarterectomy, the current gold standard surgical treatment for narrowing of the carotid arteries, to angioplasty. Goldstein reports that preliminary data suggest angioplasty might be helpful. Similarly to coronary artery angioplasty, rigid tubes known as stents are sometimes placed in the carotid arteries to prevent recurrent narrowing.

"There are also some new kinds of blood thinners that being tested as well as some new clot-busting drugs," says Goldstein, who is also chair of the American Stroke Association's Advisory Committee. "This is an exciting time in stroke and vascular disease medicine."

But long before suffering a stroke, there are things people can do to help prevent one.

  • Have your blood pressure checked
  • Keep your cholesterol within recommended limits
  • Check your pulse
  • Stop smoking
  • Exercise
  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables
  • If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation

"You have to learn how to lower your risk of stroke and what the symptoms of stroke are," Woods urges. "There's a number provided on these spots 1-888-4-STROKE you can call and there's also website. Take ten minutes and understand how to identify stroke and how to act as quickly as possible."

"If you think you've had a stroke, dial 911," Woods concludes. "It will prevent unimaginable pain and suffering in your life."

For more information about stroke, go to:

• American Stroke Association

• National Stroke Association

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 5/10/2003  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

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