March 21, 2007 | By: Terri McLean
FRANKFORT, Ky.

At the age of 19, Tamera Thomas helplessly watched as her mother was suddenly felled by a stroke. Her mother survived, but the debilitating and often fatal cardiovascular disease left a lifelong mark – both physical and emotional.

That experience also left its mark on Thomas, now the Franklin County family and consumer sciences agent for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. She is determined to help people in her community avoid a similar fate. 

“It was very devastating for our family,” said Thomas, as she recalled the struggles her mother endured. “If we could save one person from having a stroke, it’s well worth the effort.”

That “effort” is a unique partnership between the Franklin County extension office and the American Heart Association’s Power to End Stroke program. The program specifically targets black Americans, who the AHA says are at greater risk for stroke than their white counterparts and are nearly twice as likely to die from a first stroke.

“There are probably a number of reasons for that: access to health care, the disparate risks they have in terms of hypertension and diabetes. So the numbers (of blacks at risk) are pretty frightening, particularly in Kentucky,” said Ron Alsup, the AHA state health alliances director who worked with Thomas to bring the Power to End Stroke program to Franklin County.

Perhaps equally frightening is the fact that so few people, black or white, know about stroke – how to prevent it, how to recognize it, how to react to it, or even that they’re in danger, Thomas said. It is the No. 3 killer and a leading disabler in the United States.

“At the time of my mother’s stroke, she was visiting friends. They called me and said we think you need to take your mom to the doctor. Had I known what those (stroke) symptoms were – had her friends known – we may have been able to get her treatment much sooner than we did and she would not have had the disability she had for the rest of her life. She survived it, but she was paralyzed on her right side,” Thomas said.

“If you can get someone treatment early enough, then their risk of disability dramatically decreases,” Alsup added. “Too often people say, ‘Oh, the symptoms will go away.’ But that’s the critical time where we try to get help. There’s a lot that can be done in that window of time.”

In bringing Power to End Stroke to Franklin County, Thomas and Alsup hope to create increased awareness of the disease. She and Alsup recently joined forces with Harold Benson, director of the land-grant program at Kentucky State University, to sponsor a free, open-to-the-public event on KSU’s campus. Dr. Adewale Troutman, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, spoke at the event, which also included free stroke screenings conducted by representatives from the UK Hospital. One hundred and fifty people attended and nearly 40 people, mostly young male KSU students, were screened for the disease.

“Power to End Stroke is designed to educate and also to move people to action,” said Alsup, who is now encouraging his AHA counterparts in other states to partner with extension to provide stroke awareness. Attendees at the KSU event included extension personnel from West Virginia and Ohio, both of whom said they would like to initiate similar awareness projects in their states. 

“Some risk factors cannot be altered, including race, age and family history of stroke,” Alsup continued. “But people do have power to make lifestyle changes that may reduce others. They can stop smoking, lose weight, increase physical activity, see a doctor about blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes, and follow instructions for managing these, if necessary.” 

With the first stroke awareness project considered a success, Thomas is busy making plans for future projects, including working with churches, state government and other organizations to provide educational programs for adults. She would also like to incorporate AHA’s family tree information into local schools. And she would like to help extension offices in other parts of the state initiate stroke awareness efforts.

“You can be very creative in how you do it. It’s just getting the information to them,” she said. “The knowledge helps them know they can actually do something about it – gives them a sense of empowerment, not just for themselves but for their family, friends, whomever. “

“If we can raise awareness and educate individuals and if we can make a difference in helping people either avoid a stroke altogether or, if they happen to have a stroke, positioning them to recover as much as possible, that’s what we want to do,” Alsup said.

Contact: 

Tamera Thomas, 502-695-9035, Ron Alsup, 502-371-6001