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Dr. Sandra Black has a long legacy of pioneering stroke research.  (Supplied)

Dr. Sandra Black has a long legacy of pioneering stroke research.



The Strokebusters Add to ...

Robert Kane says he is alive today because of Sunnybrook’s leading research in stroke prevention, treatment and rehabilitation 

In 2004, a clot-busting drug lessened the damage to Robert Kane’s brain after he suffered a stroke. It was the second time tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) had given him a second chance at life.

The first was in June 1987 when Robert was just 37. After a major heart attack, he was given the then-experimental drug, saving his life.

Despite dieting, quitting smoking and a new interest in cycling, he suffered two more heart attacks on the August long weekend in 1996. The first hit him at work, the second in the hospital three days later. In early 1997 he received quadruple bypass surgery to remove blockages in four of his arteries.

That brings us back to January 2004, when he was hit by an intense headache at work. He was taken to Sunnybrook, where he was greeted by a stroke team neurologist and offered tPA.

“I said, ‘Well, say no more,’” he laughs. “Go ahead.”

The drug – which dissolves blood clots – induced blood flow back into Robert’s brain, preventing more brain cells from dying. It must be given to patients intravenously within about three hours of a stroke to be most effective, and reduce the chances of serious bleeding in the brain.

“I certainly have been lucky,” Robert says. “I have been in the right place at the right time, every time.”

He credits Dr. Sandra Black – an internationally renowned stroke expert – and her team for his amazing recovery. His speech was only minimally affected, though he had to relearn how to move his left side and to walk. By June 2004, just months after he was stricken, he could walk again and actually cycled 50 kilometres in the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s Ride for Heart. Today, the 62-year-old is back working full time as a salesman for a high-end appliance company, and still an avid cyclist. In 2011, he and one of his sons rode from Toronto to Algonquin Park – a 300-kilometre trip.

“He has had his ups and downs, but he still has a very enjoyable life. He almost died, but there are plenty of stories like that, people who do really well after stroke,” Dr. Black says.

Sunnybrook can take credit for  many of those amazing stories. The hospital has a long history of focusing on research, driven by the clinical needs of a high volume of stroke patients, says Dr. Rick Swartz, medical director of the North-East-GTA Regional Stroke Program and a clinician-scientist with the Brain Sciences program who specializes in strokes in young people. Spurred by Dr. Black’s legacy of stroke research, Sunnybrook has a strong culture of innovation and new discoveries, Dr. Swartz adds, and stroke is one of the hospital’s strategic areas of focus.

“We have plenty of patients and plenty of need so we have a connection between the bedside and the science.”

He says Sunnybrook is also a research heavyweight because of its collaborative approach. The hospital has partnerships with leading brain scientists worldwide and with clinics dedicated to a variety of disciplines. In July of 2012, for example, the hospital merged with St. John’s Rehab in nearby North York. The two institutions are intertwined as a single health-care organization that provides seamless care for patients, including stroke, cancer and burn victims. The merger means stroke patients will receive acute care at Sunnybrook and intensive rehab to help recovery at St. John’s.

Because stroke is such a prevalent disease (about one stroke occurs every 10 minutes in Canada), there is an impetus to improve prevention and recovery rates. The disease is estimated to cost the Canadian economy $3.6-billion a year.

Sunnybrook began building its foundation for stroke innovation and care in the 1970s, Dr. Black says. It became the first Canadian hospital with a designated stroke unit, consisting of five electrocardiography-monitored beds. Many ground-breaking observational and treatment studies were conducted at that time, which helped establish the centre’s recognition as a stroke leader. For example, a clinical trial showed administering stroke patients an intravenous steroid was actually harmful, leading to the practice to be abandoned worldwide.

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