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Retired Nurse Survives "Locked-In Syndrome"

Retired Nurse Survives “Locked-In Syndrome” Thanks to Baylor St. Luke’s Stroke Team

As a retired nurse, Verdis Whitesel treated patients with many different medical symptoms, but never anything like what she felt one September night. 

She had been sleeping when suddenly, her mind started racing with repetitive thoughts and images.  “At first it felt like I was sinking into the bed. It felt like I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t wake up.  I kept repeating things in my head over and over again that I couldn’t control or enunciate.  I thought I was going to die,” the 69-year-old Groves, Texas resident recalled.  Finally, after a few minutes, she was able to sit up in bed.  “What just happened?!” she asked her husband, Bob, who immediately noticed that Verdis was slurring her words.  

Verdis was experiencing the early stages of neurological paralysis called Locked-in Syndrome.  “It is a rare condition that feels like your body is locked and while you can completely understand what's going on around you, you cannot do anything about it. Your motor functions are completely affected,” said Venkatasubba Rao, MD, medical director of stroke and neurocritical care at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and associate professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine.

Verdis was rushed to Christus Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, the same facility where she cared for patients as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) for 24 years. After a CT Scan showed a blood clot in the back of her brain, the hospital set up an emergency telemedicine consult with the Baylor St. Luke’s stroke team in Houston, which confirmed a stroke in the basilar artery near the base of the brain.  It can be fatal. “The basilar artery supplies a very narrow, high-traffic area of the brain. So even blocking a small blood vessel can create devastating effects - you're pretty much cutting off the main highway that connects the brain to the rest of the body,” Dr. Rao said.

She was airlifted to Baylor St. Luke’s in Houston via a 20-minute emergency medevac flight while a multidisciplinary team of specialists prepped for a lifesaving minimally invasive procedure called mechanical thrombectomy,  considered one of the most advanced treatments for stroke. Vascular Neurosurgeon Dr. Naser Jaleel and his team inserted a fine catheter into the blood vessel at Verdis’s wrist and fed a catheter all the way up into the brain to pull the clot out and reestablish blood flow to the brain.

Verdis was discharged two days later with only a small incision on her right wrist to show for the life-threatening ordeal. Doctors advised her to take it easy for a few weeks and within a month, she was back exercising 30 minutes on the elliptical and using hand weights for strength.

“Ms. Whitesel’s rapid stroke care exemplifies how our multidisciplinary team works together to save lives,” Dr. Jaleel said. “The patient is doing great and her family is so grateful she came home without neurologic deficits.”

Verdis could not say enough about the care she received at Baylor St. Luke’s. “They were awesome. They are my angels. I was in the right place at the right time,” she remarked. “So much professionalism and also kindness.”  Verdis was especially touched by the hospital chaplain who brought Bob a bible to read to her after the procedure.  “I remember hearing him reading scripture to me,” she recalled. “The doctors said he did the right thing by insisting we call 9-1-1,” she said.

Bob agreed.   “It could have gone the other way had we not rushed her to the emergency room.  I’m so grateful for the care she received,” he said.  “It was all part of God’s plan.”

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