WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, NY — Rosanna Diaz was recovering at home in Washington Heights with what doctors would later conclude was the coronavirus when she got up from bed one day and suddenly couldn’t walk.
Diaz remembers holding onto her 4-year-old son’s closet door for balance, her husband rushing to her side, him calling 911 — and then it goes blank.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on? Why am I feeling like this?,'” Diaz remembers. “I didn’t know I was having a stroke.”
She would wake up hours later in a hospital bed, tubes in her mouth and her hands constrained by her side. The only way she knew where she was before family and doctors came into the room was an “Intensive Care Unit” sign on the wall, Diaz said.
Scary as the experience was, doctors say Diaz was lucky.
The 37-year-old mom came in quickly enough that doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical center were able to perform emergency surgery to remove a clot in her brain before she suffered brain damage, paralysis or, in the worst case, lost her life. Instead, Diaz quickly regained movement on her left side, the side of the clot, and left the hospital 48 hours later.
That is an outcome that is unfortunately becoming less and less common in the face of the coronavirus crisis, doctors say.
New Yorkers afraid of going into the hospital and catching COVID-19 are instead staying at home and, in the worst cases, getting discovered by paramedics when it’s too late.
“We are seeing a pretty significant decline in the number of patients coming to the hospital with stroke symptoms,” Diaz’s neurologist Dr. Joshua Willey said. “Some of the folks are staying at home and we’re alarmed by reports of paramedics finding them at home deceased.”
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Willey says preliminary studies show a 50 percent drop in stroke patients specifically, which is likely a conservative estimate. Trends are similar for other medical emergencies, like heart attacks, he said.
The phenomenon is particularly alarming given that COVID-19 likely increases the risk for medical emergencies like strokes to happen, especially in younger people, Willey said.
It’s hard to tell whether Diaz would have had a stroke had she not had coronavirus, he said, but early research is starting to show that the body’s response to fight COVID-19 might be leading to the type of dangerous blood clotting that causes strokes.
“When the body is actively trying to fight off infection, the same processes happen that happen with forming clots more easily,” Willey said. “When it becomes very aggressive or too aggressive your immune system goes into hyper-drive.”
That response is typically most aggressive in younger people whose bodies fight coronavirus the most vigorously, he said.
Doctors like Willey are therefore encouraging patients, even those without coronavirus, to follow Diaz’s example.
“She was very fortunate in the sense that people recognized she was having a stroke and we were happy to hear her and her family were not afraid to come to the hospital,” Willey said. “We really want to get the word out there to say please come in for these life-saving emergencies.”
People should review the symptoms associated with both strokes and heart attacks and know that acting quickly could make all the difference, Willey said. Hospitals have mechanisms in place to make sure that those coming in won’t be exposed to the coronavirus, he added.
And, perhaps more importantly, not coming in could have more dire consequences than catching COVID-19.
For Diaz — who didn’t know she had coronavirus when she went to the hospital — sticking around for her family, especially her son Tomas, trumped her fear.
“I just wanted to get home to him,” Diaz said. “I thought I was going to lose my life.”
Her advice to others, Diaz added, is “to know that if you’re having any signs you don’t feel well, if you feel weak on one side call 911 right away.”
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