Published on April 20, 2021

The View from my Seat

Friend’s ‘stroke of luck’ takes him from death bed to golf course

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Do you ever wonder how luck - either good or bad - has affected your health?

This disabled person does. Nine years ago, I was put in a wheelchair by transverse myelitis, a spinal cord disorder that strikes only 1,500 people a year in this country. One third of TM patients recover completely; one third recover somewhat; and the rest don’t recover at all. Count me in that last group.

Since I didn’t smoke or drink, ate healthy, exercised regularly and passed annual checkups, I tend to think I was a victim of bad luck.

But I will never know.

Bob Levy, a friend from high school in California, knows he wouldn’t be alive today if he hadn’t had some good luck.

On a Tuesday in 2001, Bob was at his Marina del Rey home outside Los Angeles with his toddler and her nanny. Suddenly, he felt strange, and he started talking gibberish. Worried, the nanny went to a neighbor for help.

STROKE OF LUCK #1: The neighbor was home and immediately recognized a problem. He took Bob to a hospital. It was nearby.

Doctors quickly detected a blood vessel in Bob’s brain that was blocked by a clot. In 2001, 80 percent of strokes were caused by brain clots, increasing the chances of disability or death. Fatality rates can be as high as 90 percent, depending on which blood vessel is blocked.

By now, Bob’s wife, Enrily, was on the scene. With time a critical factor, doctors discussed treatment options.

STROKE OF LUCK #2: Enrily was the CFO for an ad agency, and every Tuesday morning she flew to the San Francisco office. But not that Tuesday morning. She had stayed in Los Angeles and arrived at the hospital in time to make a treatment decision. Since Bob could neither speak nor understand, Enrily’s consent was needed.

She was given two options. There was the traditional treatment of administering tPA, a clot -busting drug that operates like Drano. The drug, however, needs to be given quickly, and Bob’s stroke was severe.

The second option was a clinical trial being conducted at UCLA. The trial involved the MERCI Retriever, a corkscrew device that is threaded through an artery to remove the clot and restore blood flow.

STROKE OF LUCK #3: The UCLA hospital also was close and was one of only three in the country conducting the trial. Bob qualified for the trial.

Enrily decided, and her husband was “red-lighted” by ambulance to UCLA.

STROKE OF LUCK #4: Her decision was based on several factors: The severity of the stroke and the fact that UCLA was a major research institution. At the time, it was also one of the few hospitals with a stroke “team.”

But there was another factor. The couple’s daughter, Evan Rose, had broken her arm several months earlier. She had been taken to the same hospital Bob was in. They had waited five hours to get Evan Rose treated. Bob made it clear that if anything ever happened to him Enrily was to take him anywhere but the hospital he was in.

There was a team of eight waiting for Bob at UCLA. He was rolled into the operating room. As video rolled, he was asked to blink. He just stared into space.

He was then treated with the MERCI Retriever, which snared the blood clot at the base of his brain.

Still on the operating table, he was asked to move his right arm. He obliged. Same for his right leg.
A doctor asked his name.

“I said, ‘Robert Levy.’ They were jumping for joy; they were pretty excited,” he said.

“STROKE OF LUCK #5: Bob was only the second patient treated with the retriever. The first patient died.

Three years later, the MERCI Retriever was approved for wider use by the Food and Drug Administration.

As for Bob, he left the hospital after a couple of days and was on the golf course 10 days after the surgery. The news of Bob and the MERCI Retriever made several network morning shows.

Now, 20 years later, he is semi-retired and thankful he has no lingering damage from his stroke.
As for me, I can’t help but wonder: What if I had gone to a different hospital with different doctors? Would my luck have changed?

I will never know.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)