The Investigators: Many Mississippians live far from crucial stroke care

Stroke patients need help fast to survive and have a good outcome after they survive
Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 12:29 PM CDT
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(Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 27, 2021 at 10:34 PM CDT - Updated June 1 at 9:10 AM on

CLARKSDALE, Miss. (Great Health Divide) - Someone dies of a stroke every four minutes in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stroke death rates in most of the Mississippi Delta region are above the national average, and many residents live more than 45 minutes from a hospital that is stroke-certified.

“Most of the strokes I see here come from chronic illnesses – diabetes and hypertension,” said Dr. Mohammed Hadidi, a neurologist in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

People in Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is located, die of strokes at a higher rate than most other places in the United States. The stroke death rate is 101.2 deaths per 100,000 in Coahoma County while the national average is 72.6 deaths.

The rates of diabetes and hypertension, or high blood pressure, are high in Coahoma County.

In fact, most counties in the Delta region have higher incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and strokes.

A stroke occurs when blood supply is cut off to the brain; most commonly by a blood clot, but it can also happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

“Seconds count because all studies show the earlier, the better the chance the recovery from the stroke,” said Hadidi. “I see patients as young as 30s and they’re in a wheelchair because they didn’t get the proper intervention for their stroke.”

Thirty-two percent of Mississippians live more than 45 minutes from a hospital certified for stroke care, according to analysis by Kaiser Health News and InvestigateTV.

However, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) has an emergency referral center called MEDCOM.

Mississippi EMTs can call the MEDCOM center to find out where a patient should go, based on hospital bed availability, traffic and a patient’s symptoms.

“Our local hospitals and EMS providers know where the resources are,” said Dr. Jonathan Wilson, UMMC’s chief administrative officer. “So, when they interface with a patient and pick them up on a 911 call, they know where the most appropriate place will be to take the patient.”

Mississippi also designates levels for its trauma centers on a one through four scale.

A level-one stroke center is able to provide critical care to the most serious stroke patients. There are only three level-one stroke centers in Mississippi.

Northwest Regional, where Hadidi is located, is a level-three trauma center capable of diagnosing and stabilizing patients who need to be transferred to a level-two or one facility.

The nearest level-one facility is an hour and a half away in Memphis.

Hadidi says when having a stroke, seconds count, not only when it comes to saving your life but also the quality of life you’ll have after you survive.

“You could be not able to walk, not able to talk, not able to use their arm,” he said.

With such limited resources available statewide, level designations and MEDCOM are both crucial, according to Dr. Dan Jones, also with UMMC.

“This is organized in a way to be sure that within that magical three-hour period of time that every person in every state in every area of the state has an opportunity to receive, to receive that care,” he said.

Jones says lack of access is a big issue for Mississippi stroke patients but so is lack of awareness.

“People who are less educated and less informed are less likely to be aware that if they have certain symptoms, they need to call and get help and get an ambulance there quickly,” said Jones.

The signs of a stroke include sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body, confusion or trouble speaking, trouble seeing or walking, and sudden severe headache.

Hadidi says stroke survival depends a lot on how quickly help arrives.

“But if you look at the big picture, if you want really to make a difference, I would say you focus on lifestyle issues here in the Delta,” said Hadidi.

You can prevent your risk of a stroke by lowering your blood pressure, losing weight, and exercising more.

For more tips to prevent stroke, click here.

Great Health Divide is an initiative addressing health disparities in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia funded in part by the Google News Initiative.

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