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NJ Senate President’s Dad
‘Good As Gold’ After Stroke

Robert SweeneyRobert Sweeney points to his 14 grandchildren in the photographs around his Cherry Hill home, listing their ages, colleges and professions. He is thankful that he is here, in his own home — and not a nursing home — after a massive stroke left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak.

“After my stroke, I woke up in the hospital, and I could move everything. I could speak. I am good as gold now. I was not afraid to die, but I didn’t want to be paralyzed,” Sweeney said.

At 82, Sweeney’s experience shows how the newest emergency stroke treatments, in the hands of highly trained, experienced neurosurgeons at specialized, comprehensive stroke centers, can make an enormous difference in stroke outcomes, even for elderly patients.

Sweeney shows no signs of the massive stroke that sent him, late at night and by helicopter, from his local hospital to the Capital Institute for Neurosciences at Capital Health in late December.

He bypassed the emergency department and went straight to a specialized CT scan, which showed a blockage and blood clot preventing blood from flowing within his brain. More important, the scan showed that his brain, beyond the blockage, remained healthy and could be saved if the clot could be quickly removed.

He immediately went to surgery where Dr. Erol Veznedaroglu, a dual-trained neurosurgeon and director of the Capital Institute for Neurosciences, used the latest neurosurgical interventions to quickly restore blood flow to Sweeney’s brain.

Amazingly, this was all accomplished from just a small incision in the patient’s thigh. During the emergency surgery, Dr. Veznedaroglu, also known as Dr. Vez, used the body’s blood system as a pathway to navigate specialized, miniaturized tools from an artery in the patient’s thigh through the body to the brain. Dr. Vez first opened the patient’s clogged carotid artery in the neck. Then, he threaded another specialized micro-catheter from the thigh into Sweeney’s brain to physically remove the blood clot and reestablish unrestricted blood flow within his entire brain.

Sweeney recovered swiftly in the hospital’s dedicated, neurosurgical intensive care unit.

“My family and I are enormously grateful for the treatment provided to my father, and we are enormously grateful that he has recovered so well,” said New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“My father is back on his feet and living independently, which is the way he wants it,” Sen. Sweeney said. “His experience shows the importance of stroke victims getting emergency treatment in a timely manner.

“With this quality of care available here in New Jersey, patients don’t have to go to out-of-state hospitals, which is especially important in treating stroke victims,” the senator added. “My entire family thanks the doctors, nurses and medical workers for their compassion and care.”

Another of Sweeney’s sons, Dr. Robert Sweeney, an emergency room physician in New Jersey, said he hopes more elderly people recognize that new treatments often can prevent permanent disability. Some older people believe stroke inevitably means disability until their last days and may not seek swift treatment.

“My father had an outstanding outcome,” Dr. Sweeney said. “I saw him on the night he was transferred, and he could not speak or move one side of his body. He was as bad as I have seen any stroke patient. Within 24 hours, he was talking and had his motor function restored. There is no doubt that if he had not had this aggressive treatment, he would be in custodial care, or dead, from complications of the stroke.”

Members of the tight-knit family, including grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law, took turns staying with the elder Sweeney, a member of the ironworkers union for 55 years, throughout his hospitalization.

The elder Sweeney said he told his children he would not want to live if he ever had a devastating stroke.

“But here I am. I can do everything myself. I love Dr. Vez. I told him, ‘Thank you. You saved my life!’ He said, ‘No, somebody bigger than me saved your life.’ I tell everyone, ‘Go to a true, comprehensive center.’”

Sweeney said he wanted to share his story to educate others about stroke. He then walked around his house, showing off his car in the garage and talking about his friends in the union hall.

In the past several years, Capital Health’s Capital Institute for Neurosciences has become a regional leader in providing the most state-of-the-art, advanced neurosurgical care available for complex conditions involving the brain. The number of healthcare facilities and physicians referring patients to the institute has grown significantly over the past five years and now exceeds 95 healthcare facilities. The hospital now performs more brain and aneurysm surgeries than any other hospital in New Jersey.

In addition, Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton is the nation’s only hospital named both a 2012 Top Performer in Stroke and an Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center by the Joint Commission.

Dr. Veznedaroglu said everything went right with Sweeney, whose symptoms were immediately recognized at the local NJ hospital where Mr. Sweeney started this life-saving journey.

“He got here as soon as possible. With stroke, and any neurologic emergency, time is of the essence,” Dr. Veznedaroglu said. “Before we opened the Capital Institute for Neurosciences six years ago, many New Jersey patients with neurological emergencies were being shipped out of state, often to Philadelphia. Now that we are offering world-class neurosurgical services right here, thankfully that’s no longer necessary. But people must act quickly at the first sign of stroke.”

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