Sailor Finds Fast Care at Scripps After Suffering a Stroke

Expert caregivers help Scripps Health patient Lowell North survive a stroke

Lowell North is no stranger to the challenges of sailing. He won an Olympic gold medal and five world championships, skippered in the America’s Cup trials, and sailed around the world. So when he seemed unusually tired after a demanding regatta in San Diego Bay in November 2006, his wife, Bea, was concerned.

“It was the last day of the regatta, and it had been a long, arduous race,” Bea recalls.

When the couple finally returned to the yacht club, a party was taking place. To Bea’s surprise, Lowell didn’t want to attend. He seemed distracted and in a hurry to get home.

“I thought it was odd, but I figured he was just very tired,” Bea says.

Observing warning signs of stroke

At home, Lowell went straight to bed, asking Bea to wake him for the kickoff of the Chargers’ football game that evening. She tried, but couldn’t keep him awake. Suddenly, she worried he might be having a stroke; several of her relatives had suffered stroke, and she knew the warning signs.

“I put him through all the tests that I know of: smile, repeat after me, hold your hands out, grab my hands, and that kind of thing,” Bea says. “He passed them all with flying colors and went back to sleep.”

Soon after, though, Lowell awoke and came around to his wife’s side of the bed to kiss her goodnight — and Bea was alarmed to see his body crumple to the left. She called 911.

By the time she arrived at the Emergency Department at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, Lowell had already had a CT scan, which indicated pending herniation of the brain — an event he would not likely recover from.

Emergency brain surgery for a blood clot

Scripps La Jolla recently earned the Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval for stroke care and was designated a Joint Commission Certified Primary Stroke Center.

“As part of the Stroke Code response at Scripps, neurosurgery was immediately contacted and I responded,” says neurosurgeon Frank Coufal, MD. "When I evaluated him, he was clearly in an ominous circumstance.”

Working in tandem with the emergency room personnel as well as neurologist Fred De La Vega, MD, Dr. Coufal immediately took Lowell into the operating room for emergency brain surgery and removed a large blood clot.

“He would have had catastrophic brain damage if another 30 minutes had gone by, or he would have died,” recalls Dr. de la Vega.

“There’s no question Scripps saved my life,” agrees Lowell, who doesn’t remember any of the events leading up to his stroke or his emergency care. “I feel very lucky to be alive.”

Lowell is indeed lucky.

“His outcome is particularly dramatic because of the multiple underlying medical conditions he had, his age, and the fact that when a patient progresses to the point of pending herniation, the chances of having a meaningful, functional existence thereafter decrease significantly,” says Dr. Coufal.

“His dramatic recovery can only be attributed to the unique teamwork approach at Scripps Memorial Hospital and the subsequent rapid, definitive surgical treatment.”

Returning to a life of good health and sailing

These days, Lowell is doing very well. Though he suffered some peripheral vision loss that prevents him from driving, nothing keeps him from his ultimate passion — sailing. He still sails with Bea and traveled to Spain for last year’s America’s Cup.

“The single most important factor was the efficient teamwork of the stroke team,” agrees Dr. de la Vega, who still checks in with Lowell every few months. “By choosing to have a Joint Commission-certified stroke center as a goal, Scripps La Jolla has been able to save patients from worse injury by having a process in place rather than continue less uniform, less advanced treatment practices.”

“To us it is a miracle, and we are so thankful to Scripps,” says Bea. “I can’t imagine being anywhere in the country and having better care.”