Fifth-grader Rebecca Bagby says she “sprinted down the hall like a cheetah” to the school nurse’s office when her teacher was in distress.
The students at Whiteside Middle School knew something was wrong. Blair Russell was mumbling, his face was drooping on one side and he couldn’t stay seated in his chair.
School nurse Amanda Eversgerd identified the signs of a stroke right away, and a staff member called 911.
Eversgerd is familiar with emergency situations from her previous job as a trauma nurse at Saint Louis University Hospital.
“I’ve dealt with life-threatening situations before. It definitely is scary,” Eversgerd said. “We moved very, very quickly.”
When she got to Russell’s classroom, he was on the floor behind his desk.
“I immediately knew something was terribly wrong,” Eversgerd said. “I knew when I first spoke to him that it was a stroke. One side of his body was paralyzed. He was unable to move it.”
Another teacher came in to help evacuate the students as they waited for paramedics to arrive.
“They were obviously very shaken up,” Eversgerd said.
One year later, the scary incident is still fresh in the minds of Russell, his former students and colleagues.
Most of the students in class were crying. “We thought he was going to die,” Rebecca said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
Student Dasia Napper said she was scared. “It was just crazy,” she said. “I’ve never seen somebody have a stroke before.”
Student Anaia Crow-Vindiola was “very, very scared. I was starting to cry, because I didn’t know if he was going to die or if he was going to live.”
Eversgerd was impressed with the maturity of the students.
“I was very, very taken back by the maturity students showed in the emergency situation and afterward,” Eversgerd said. “Everyone was extremely mature about it.”
She was especially impressed that the students were able to identify that Russell needed help even if he didn’t say he did.
“It was beyond Mr. Russell to be able to help himself,” Eversgerd said. “That fills me with a lot of pride — the caliber of the character of the students that were in the classroom.”
At first, Rebecca, said she and other students thought their teacher was “being funny because he likes to joke with us.” Then, “We saw him starting to drool. One side of his lip was drooping down.”
Dasia said she got another teacher while Rebecca went to the school nurse’s office.
Russell, 38, vividly remembers suffering a stroke at 1:30 p.m. May 4, 2015. The day before, Russell said he and his wife, Macy, were coming back from Wisconsin where they were visiting family. It was a 9-hour drive.
“I felt fine. I just felt very tired all day,” he said. “I just thought it was the trip that we did.”
Around 1:20 p.m. Russell recalled getting numbness in his left hand. “My last three fingers, they just started feeling numb. I started pinching them. I bit them. I couldn’t feel anything.
“My kids started saying ‘Mr. Russell, you sound funny.’ I was teaching math at the time.”
Russell got a glass of water from behind his desk. “Water started coming out of the side of my mouth whenever I started talking,” he said.
He went back to his desk to sit down, because he said he “wasn’t feeling right.”
That’s when the tingling started coming up his arm and his leg started becoming numb. “I sat down or I attempted to sit down,” Russell said. “I fell out of my chair. The kids thought I was joking because I mess around with my kids a lot and joke around with them.”
Three boys in his class tried to pick him up, he said. “I was deadweight. I couldn’t move,” Russell said. “They couldn’t move me, and at that point I started getting scarred.”
Russell has a had a heart condition since birth — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. “At first since it was my left arm, I thought I was having a heart attack,” he said.
Then after thinking about the slurred speech, Russell said he thought he may be having a stroke. “I didn’t think I was old enough to have one of those,” said Russell, whose grandfather had a stroke when he was in his late 70s.
The school nurse, Eversgerd, came in and told Russell he was having a stroke. “That’s when it hit me very hard,” he said. “I tried to remember everything. Anything I ever heard about a stroke is you forget things and lose your money.”
Russell said he was “scared to death” that his kids were in the room. He remembers wondering what they must be thinking and feeling.
“I was just scared out of my mind that I was going to die right there on the floor,” he said.
The EMTs took him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville. “I had no idea what’s going on. I was going in and out,” Russell said.
Blood clot removal
Russell suffered an ischemic stroke, which means a clot was blocking blood supply to the brain, said Dr .Jin-Moo Lee, a neurologist who specializes in strokes. Lee treated Russell at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
“He had a blockage of a major artery — one of the largest arteries in the brain,” Lee said. “This was on the right side of the brain, which is why he had the weakness on the left side.”
In Russell’s case, blood was not flowing through the part of the brain where the clot was. It was critical to get the blockage removed and blood flowing as quickly as possible.
At St. Elizabeth’s, Russell remembers seeing a doctor on a computer screen. “They wanted to see my face to see how serious it was,” he said. “I remember them saying, ‘You have to get him to Barnes as soon as possible. He’s going to lose more if we don’t take care of this right now.’”
According to Lee, there’s a shortage of stroke specialists in the country, which is where telemedicine comes in. It’s hard for a doctor not familiar with strokes to determine the right course of action.
As a result of the specialist seeing Russell’s face, he received a tissue plasminogen activator. “It’s an intravenous medicine that is used to dissolve blood clots that cause blockages in the arteries,” Lee said. “Then he was immediately transferred to us at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.”
Russell said he doesn’t remember anything about the helicopter ride except the noise.
Upon arrival, he was taken into surgery where an interventional neuroradiologist used a small catheter, threaded it up through his leg to his brain, grabbed the clot and removed it.
“You can actually snare that clot and pull it out mechanically,” Lee said. “It took three passes (with Russell). They had to go in and out three times. They finally got it. They pulled the clot out and then shortly thereafter his symptoms began to resolve. ... He was able to regain a lot of the function that was initially lost.”
The procedure was done less than six months after several studies were published in January 2015, Lee said, that found this new therapy called thrombectomy was “proven to be effective for exactly this type of stroke.”
At Barnes, Lee explained thrombectomy wasn’t adopted as the standard of care until those studies came out. “Before that, we did it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Eight days later, Russell returned to his classroom to finish out the school year and, most importantly, let his kids know he was OK.
“I wanted to prove to my kids that I was strong enough to come back, and I wanted them to see me, because they saved my life too by going to get the nurse,” he said. “I was stubborn, telling them no, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. They went out of their way and got the nurse and made sure I was OK.”
His students were thankful to have him back.
“I was really, really relieved,” Anaia said. “I was glad, because he was one of my favorite teachers. It made me feel a lot better, and I didn’t have to worry anymore.”
Rebecca said Russell is her “favorite teacher of all time.”
Now a year later, Russell said he has only minimal lasting effects from the stroke. Three of his fingers on his left hand are still weak, and he has some memory issues.
“To have those two be my only side effects after a stroke, I consider myself very lucky,” he said.
Russell admits he still doesn’t sleep “great” as he’s worried it’s going to happen again. He’s taking blood thinners, which doctors say reduce the risk.
The stroke wasn’t Russell’s only major medical emergency last year. Right before Thanksgiving, Russell’s defibrillator shocked his heart while he was dancing as part of a skit. He was transported by ambulance to the hospital from the school.
“It felt like somebody punched me in the chest as hard as they could,” he said. “It was a crazy, crazy year.”
Stroke symptoms, awareness
Lee said it can be difficult to identify a stroke since the signs are different depending on what area of the brain it’s in.
The most common symptoms, he said, are the sudden onset of weakness on one side of the body; numbness on one side of the body; inability to communicate, either understand or create speech; and inability to see out of one eye or one visual field.
“The hallmark of a stroke is it happens suddenly,” Lee said. “One moment you’re OK and within moments, you have these deficits.”
When a stroke happens, time is of the essence. “When a stroke occurs, the brain tissue doesn’t all die at once. ...The death occurs over a period of minutes to hours,” he said. “As the stroke is evolving, the earlier you intervene with the therapy, the more effective that therapy is.”
For the procedure Russell had, Lee said, that therapy window is six hours. “Time is really critical,” he said.
May is National Stroke Awareness month.
“It’s important for everyone to recognize a stroke,” said Eversgerd, the school nurse at Whiteside.
Whiteside Middle School has cardiopulmonary resuscitation training with staff members, which includes stroke symptom awareness.
The school has a first aid and CPR unit for sixth-grade classes.
Training children and young people is important, Eversgerd said. “Who is going to be with those people who are most likely to suffer from a stroke? Their kids,”
Russell appreciates all the support he received from students and staff members at Whiteside.
“The students and teachers all helped me get my strength back,” he said, “and I owe them a lot.”
Since his life scares last year, Russell said he appreciates life even more now.
“Live every day like its your last, hug everybody; and that’s what I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t let things get to me as much as they did back then. I would get mad and frustrated a lot, but now I have even more patience than I did when I first started teaching. It could be my last day. I almost died twice.”
Signs of a possible stroke, according to neurologist Dr. Jin-Moo Lee
- Sudden onset of weakness on one side of the body
- Numbness on one side of the body
- Inability to communicate, either understand or create speech
- Inability to see out of one eye or one visual field