LUFKIN, TEXAS (May 21, 2018)… “I watched him day after day study and become a paramedic. Little did I know what he was doing would save my life one day.”
Tired and weak from an intense bout of food poisoning, Bridget Tobias, 43, of Lufkin was resting on the couch at home around 2:30 in the afternoon on January 31, 2018. Her husband Jason had just cleaned up from lunch.
“I had taken her plate back into the kitchen and she told me ‘My body’s cramping up,’ and she rolled over. I sat her up, and when I looked at her, she was drooling. I said ‘Grin for me real big,’ and when she did there was nothing on her left side.”
Jason’s professional instincts kicked in immediately. A Fire Rescue Captain and Paramedic for the Nacogdoches Fire Department for the past 20-plus years, Jason had seen hundreds of stroke victims riding in the back of his ambulance. He never expected, however, to see one in his own living room. After performing the Cincinnati Pre-Hospital Stroke Scale, which assesses a person for facial drooping, speech abnormalities and arms that drift when raised, he recognized that his wife was experiencing the telltale signs of a stroke, including total paralysis of her left side.
“The last thing I really remember was him telling me he had called an ambulance,” Bridget said.
Bridget Tobias, a relatively young and healthy horse rancher and former barrel racer, was brought to CHI St. Luke’s Health-Memorial Lufkin – a Certified Primary Stroke Care Center – only a half-hour from the beginning of her symptoms. The hospital’s dedicated stroke team was ready and waiting for her. Bridget had a CT scan done within the first minute of arrival, and then immediately received tPA (Tissue Plasminogen Activator), a medication that dissolves blood clots and the gold standard in medical treatment of ischemic strokes. Two specific CT scans confirmed the diagnosis of the Emergency Department physician John Sanders, M.D. and the need to send Bridget for more advanced, interventional neurological treatment, called a Mechanical Thrombectomy. The procedure would be done at CHI Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, the sister facility of CHI St. Luke’s Health-Memorial and a
Comprehensive Stroke Center in the Texas Medical District known for its NeuroScience Center. Interventional Neuroradiology at the NeuroScience Center has garnered international recognition for cutting-edge technology in the prevention and treatment of neurovascular diseases, according to the center’s website.
“By the time I got [to Houston]she was coming out of recovery. We were still in the tPA window by the time she was getting the Thrombectomy done,” Jason said.
For optimal results, tPA must be administered within four hours of symptom onset. Because of Jason’s keen awareness of his wife’s situation and quick response, Bridget has made a near full recovery.
It was at the beginning of their marriage that Jason received his certification to become a paramedic and then participated in the Fire Academy at Angelina College to become a fulltime firefighter and paramedic.
Twenty years later, “those late nights of studying paid off,” Bridget laughed.
“You train and you go through the hours and hours of studying and you get on an ambulance and you make calls to Joe Public’s house. You don’t know who they are. It’s your job,” Jason said. “It’s what you’re supposed to be a professional at and an expert at, and then when it’s your own family member, it’s a completely different deal. I’m thankful I was sitting there. I could have been on-duty, she could have been there alone with just our daughter. My daughter and I could have been out taking care of the horses.”
“If I had gone and lay down, I would have fallen asleep and probably never woken up,” Bridget agrees.
After nearly two weeks at CHI Baylor St. Luke’s and two interventional surgical procedures, Bridget was admitted to TIRR Rehabilitation, an intensive, inpatient rehabilitation program in Houston.
“At that time, she could move her toes and lift her foot off the bed about an inch,” Jason remembers. “I asked her before we left CHI, ‘What is your goal?’ and she said, ‘I want to be me again.’ I told her when we go to rehab that this was, hands down, going to be the hardest thing she would ever do in her life, but if you work hard, you’ll get there.”
The days were long and painful, but during those next three weeks, Bridget learned to walk again. Bridget said it was the most humbling experience of her life. After an especially exhausting physical therapy session, Bridget and Jason were riding the elevator back to her room. She questioned whether or not she would ever return to the life she loved.
“I saw myself in the mirror and thought, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You can’t even move.’ A man in a wheelchair came in and zoomed past me. When I looked back at him, he was controlling everything with his mouth, and I said, ‘Ok, I can do this.’”
Now, three-and-a-half months later, Bridget has zero deficiencies in walking, talking or cognitive function.
“They tell me, ‘you’re 99% over this,’ but this last mile is hard,” she said. “I give God all the glory, but I’m also quick to say that if you don’t believe in yourself and work your butt off, then forget it. It’s a lot of hard work.”
She continues physical therapy two days a week to gain strength and mobility in her left arm in hopes that one day she will get back into the saddle to ride alongside her husband and daughter. As a family who has participated for years in the rodeo circuit, the Tobias’ no doubt understand the value of hard work – up each morning to feed their 19 horses and the hours, upon hours of practice that’s required of young barrel racers, like their 15-year-old daughter Lucchesse. Bridget said she never imagined after all those years in the arena training her daughter to continue her barrel racing legacy that the coach would become the student.
“Bridget spent 15 years coaching Luc to ride horses and excel, and now’s she getting to be Bridget’s coach,” Jason said. “She’s been so strong through all of this.”
There are numerous reasons a stroke can happen. Non-modifiable risk factors include advanced age, gender, heredity and race. Other modifiable risk factors like diabetes, hypertension, blood cholesterol levels, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity can also raise a person’s likelihood of having a stroke. But Bridget didn’t fall into any of these categories. She’s young, physically active and eats a gluten-free diet, proof that a stroke can happen to anyone at any time.
“The one thing I try to tell people is you can’t say it’s not going to happen to you. You have to be prepared, because I never imagined this would happen to me. Never,” Bridget said.
And she encourages everyone to learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms and what to do if you see someone who may be suffering from a stroke – always call 9-1-1 first and seek help as soon as possible. Common symptoms include a new or sudden onset of weakness or paralysis, especially on one side of the body, including the face; impaired balance and coordination; speech and language deficits; impaired judgment and thought processes; confusion; and visual changes.
As a the area’s first Certified Primary Stroke Care Center, CHI St. Luke’s Health-Memorial’s stroke-focused program meets a higher set of standards to help provide better outcomes for stroke care, according to CHI St. Luke’s Health-Memorial’s Stroke Program Clinical Coordinator Amanda Allen, RN, SCRN. The program includes a dedicated stroke team – including uniquely trained nurses, neurosurgical physicians and neurologists on staff – designated CT technology and 24-hour radiologist services, a dedicated stroke unit within the hospital for optimal recovery, and full service rehabilitation capabilities, both inpatient and outpatient.
While the Tobias’ don’t know the root cause of her stroke, they say the doctors identified abnormalities in three of her four main blood vessels that lead to the brain. These abnormalities can contribute to blood clot formation. Doctors theorize that because she had spent the several days before vomiting from food poisoning, a clot may have broken lose causing her stroke. Whatever the reason, Bridget says she attributes the quick thinking of her husband and the efficiency and expertise of the staff at CHI St. Luke’s Health-Memorial for her amazing recovery.
“I would have never made it, if it hadn’t been for [Jason]. My heart knew that he saved me. I felt like if he was there, I was going to be okay,” Bridget said. “And everything the ER staff did paid off; all their hard work paid off. They gave me my life back; it’s as simple as that, because everybody did their job.”
- Ezra McMullin is a content and social media producer at MSGPR and attends Angelina College. He unwinds after a long day by playing XBox, telling himself he'll just play one more level before bed.