Emergency plane landing helps stroke victim reach hospital in time

Quick action after a stroke hits is the key to minimizing potentially devastating effects, experts say. So it was lucky that a fellow passenger and an airline pilot knew what to do when a woman on their flight began experiencing the telltale symptoms of a stroke.

Rome native Rosanna Rizzi, 83, a world traveler and yoga teacher, had spent the Christmas holiday in California visiting her daughter and grandson, but on her flight home the happy holiday took a turn. On the way from San Francisco to Frankfurt last week, she started feeling poorly, CBS Minnesota reports.

"I felt strange," Rizzi said. "I felt like I was fainting and I couldn't speak."

A doctor on board talked to the pilot about Rizzi's condition, and the pilot curtailed the overseas flight and landed instead in nearby Minneapolis so Rizzi could get to a hospital as soon as possible.

"All of a sudden the captain announced, 'We're going to land in Minneapolis,' and there was surprise," she said.

The plane landed and Rizzi was rushed to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis, where she was immediately given a clot-dissolving medicine.

Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States experience a stroke and almost 130,000 die from the condition, according to the CDC.

About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic, when a blood clot blocks an artery leading to the brain. Quick treatment can help minimize the long-term affects of a stroke and save lives, say experts.

The only FDA approved treatment for ischemic stroke is a drug called tPA - tissue plasminogen activator. It works by dissolving the clot and improving blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood. But tPA needs to be given to stroke sufferers within a certain window of time. If administered within several hours, the drug can improve a person's chances of recovering.

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Fairview neurologist Dr. Kristen Kelly-Williams says the pilot made the right decision.

"He saved her from potentially being in a wheelchair to now up walking around being her normal self," Kelly-Williams said.

"I'm very grateful," Rizzi said while recovering in the hospital.

High blood pressure, cigarette smoking, atrial fibrillation and physical inactivity can all increase a person's risk for stroke, according to the American Stroke Association. About 80 percent of all strokes are preventable, through lifestyle factors and medications.

To help identify the warning signs of a stroke, remember the acronym FAST, the association recommends:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

Rizzi, who used to be a flight attendant and whose husband was a pilot, will stay in Minneapolis for a couple more weeks for rehabilitation and then plans to head home to Rome. Once she arrives back in Italy, she says she hopes to be able to thank the pilot who helped save her life.