Practice was nearly over when high school wrestler Darrin Ching collapsed and found himself pinned to the mat, a searing pain gripping his right temple. Alarmed, his coach and teammates huddled around and tried to get him upright.
âI could hear them talking, but I couldnât move. I couldnât feel my left side,â Darrin recalls. Dehydration, the coach surmised, given the teamâs exertions on that hot Friday afternoon in September 2009. One of the paramedics who loaded the Diamond Bar teenager into an ambulance wasnât so sure.
Darrinâs sudden inability to move his left side, coupled with severe pain on the right side of his head and difficulty speaking, suggested â however improbably in a 15Â˝-year-old â a stroke from a blocked artery or bleeding in the brain. Rather than go to a closer community hospital, the EMTs sped to the nearest nationally certified primary stroke facility, UC Irvine Medical Center, in Orange.
Alerted by paramedics in transit, the medical centerâs acute stroke team was ready for Darrin. After a rapid examination, he underwent advanced brain and arterial imaging. âRight away, we could see a clot lodged in his right middle cerebral artery,â says neurologist Dr. Vivek Jain, director of UC Irvineâs highly ranked Stroke & Cerebrovascular Center. âIf left untreated, a blockage in that location will usually cause devastating brain injury.â
The stroke team weighed how to proceed. Clot-busting drugs can dissolve blockages such as Darrinâs, but their use hasnât been studied systematically in young people because strokes in patients under 18 are unusual, occurring annually in only two to 13 individuals per 100,000. Nor is there much data on minimally invasive neuro-endovascular approaches to removing clots in this age group.
After quick consultation with pediatric specialists at a nearby hospital, Jain and a UC Irvine interventional neuroradiologist recommended to Darrinâs parents that the blockage be removed endovascularly. âThe consequences of leaving the clot there would undoubtedly have been severe motor, sensory, visual and cognitive impairment,â Jain says.
Time is of the essence in preserving brain function during and immediately after a stroke. A little more than an hour after arriving at the medical center, Darrin was wheeled into a neuro-endovascular suite with advanced imaging and technology for treating stroke and neurological patients. âWe were very lucky to be at UC Irvine, because only a handful of doctors in Orange County could have performed this procedure,â notes Darrinâs mother, Pauline Ching.
A cerebral arteriogram confirmed the clot and its precise location. Next, a flexible wire was threaded through Darrinâs femoral artery in the groin and maneuvered to the middle cerebral artery, where the clot was preventing essential oxygen-rich blood from getting to the right frontal, parietal and temporal lobes. Working like a corkscrew, a specialized device then grabbed the clot â a mass of platelets, red blood cells and fibrin protein that measured barely one-tenth of an inch â and pulled it out.
âYou could see blood flowing back into the area immediately,â Jain recalls. âWe were very relieved to see such rapid brain tissue reperfusion.â Within an hour, Darrin was able to move his left arm and leg. By the second day of recuperation in the neurosciences intensive care unit at UC Irvine Douglas Hospital, he could walk without wobbling.
More tests followed to identify the source of the clot, and a team of physical, occupational and language therapists worked with Darrin to help him fully recover from the effects of his brain injury. Heâs back in school and doing well academically and otherwise.
The only vestige of the stroke, Darrin says, is in his left hand, which isnât quite as fast on the arpeggios he plays on piano. âItâs 95 percent back,â says the self-effacing teenager of his fingering technique. âI have to practice 30 minutes to an hour every day.â
The cause of Darrinâs stroke was never pinpointed. Despite a broad workup, including detailed imaging of his heart and vascular system as well as comprehensive blood clotting studies, no clear abnormalities were detected. Darrinâs risk of having another stroke is very low, Jain says, much lower than for adults who have had a stroke.
Still, the physician has advised against contact sports, including karate and wrestling, both of which Darrin misses greatly. But the worst prohibition, he thinks, is roller coasters. âIt blows,â he says with a grimace, then adds, âbut itâs OK because Iâm better.â
Darrin and his parents are keenly aware that his recovery is the result of one paramedicâs decision to take him to a specialized primary stroke center and fast action by UC Irvine Healthcareâs acute stroke team.
âIâm really thankful,â Darrin says.