Nurses at Los Alamitos Medical Center learn signs of stroke from those who know — survivors

Sep 5, 2019

The hands-on training program is the first of its kind in Orange County

LOS ALAMITOS — “Follow my finger,” a nurse instructs stroke victim Ron Wingard. “What is the current month? Make a fist.”

Fortunately, Wingard does well on the “quiz.” His stroke occurred 10 years ago and, except for weakness on his right side, he has substantially recovered.

Now Wingard volunteers at Los Alamitos Medical Center, acting as a mannequin of sorts for medical staff to practice identifying the signs of a stroke.

The hospital created the hands-on program – the first of its kind in Orange County – at the start of 2018. “We are going to team with other hospitals to get this out as a best practice,” said Heidi Taylor, manager of the facility’s Neuroscience Comprehensive Stroke Program.

Every month, real-life stroke survivors donate a few hours to lie on gurneys while nurses pepper them with questions and poke at their shins.

“It’s my way of helping future stroke victims,” said Wingard, 67, who lives in Long Beach.

For such a small facility, Los Alamitos Medical Center sees a high number of patients suffering strokes. That’s due to its proximity to the Seal Beach retirement community Leisure World, Taylor said.

So far this year, she said, the 167-bed hospital has treated 410 victims of stroke.

Estimating the severity of a stroke is more subjective than is rating other health emergencies, Taylor said. “With a heart attack, an EKG gives you more definitive information,” she said.

On Thursday, Dec. 6, Taylor and her teaching partner, registered nurse Melissa Radcliff, showed about two dozen new employees how to run through the checklist of symptoms. Then the students gave it a try themselves.

Radcliff said Los Alamitos Medical Center used to conduct the stroke trainings online – as do most hospitals.

“I’m someone who learns by doing,” said Julia Lanza, a recent nursing school graduate. “An online class cannot mimic what it’s like to actually work with a person. The models are too staged, too obvious. This way, we learn the subtleties.”

Volunteer Brian Murray, 65, has made big strides since he suffered a stroke in 2016 while dining out with his family. However, he is aware of speech deficits – at times struggling to produce the word for a common object When a nurse showed him a picture of a cactus, for instance, the Lakewood resident couldn’t muster the correct response.

“Always ask for age versus year born,” Taylor told the observers. “Birth date is a reflex, whereas people have to recall their age.”

By his third demonstration, Murray could no longer summon up his age. “My brain freezes,” he said. “It’s frustrating because I’m a talkative guy.”

But he consistently lifted his arms at a 45-degree angle, per request, prompting an ironically perfect score of zero for that skill. “Thanks a lot,” Murray joked with the nurses. “I’m a big zero.”

Phyllis Wertz, 72, suffered a stroke in 2010. The Leisure World resident found out about the hospital’s need for volunteer stroke survivors from friend Wingard.

Performing for an audience closely huddled around her can feel a bit awkward.

“My blood pressure is probably up,” Wertz said with a laugh. Still, she said, the experience is worth the self-consciousness: “It helps other people, and it’s physical therapy for me.”

The classes, Radcliff said, “create a continuous loop of education.”

“I learn something new every time I teach,” she said. “The students learn, the volunteers learn and the teachers learn.”

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