Vet lives to tell about deadly stroke encounter
He leaves the war hero accolades to Sgt. Alvin C. York, who didn’t want to fight but returned from World War I with the Medal of Honor. That’s not to say, however, that Thomas Gunter hasn’t dodged a few bullets of his own.
The first was Sept. 9, 1968 – a month after arriving in Vietnam – when shrapnel from a rocket grenade ripped through his skull and took his right eye. The second came last November when a blood clot caused a basilar large vessel occlusion (LVO), the deadliest of all cerebral strokes.
Gunter doesn’t remember much about either event but says he’s lucky to be alive after suffering the kind of stroke that kills one of every three patients.
Thanks to Keith Woodward, M.D., an interventional radiologist at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, the 70-year-old veteran not only survived but emerged from the ordeal with only a slight balance issue.
“Dr. Woodward said it was a miracle I was alive,” said Gunter, who lives not far from York’s hometown of Pall Mall and is married to the great-niece of the war hero’s wife.
The night of the stroke Gunter had started to bed when both arms began shaking wildly. “I hollered for Linda and she said, ‘I’ll call 911!’ I said, ‘Too late. I’m gone.’ That was all I remember.”
“When I got to him, he was at the foot of the bed and he had a death grip on the bed,” said Linda. “He tried to talk to me but his speech was slurred.”
About 795,000 strokes occur in the United States every year, and about 20 percent of ischemic strokes are posterior circulation strokes which block blood flow to about 20 percent of the brain, including the occipital lobes, cerebellum and brain stem.
“This area controls breathing, and these strokes can be fatal,” said Dr. Woodward. “Many patients with this stroke are ‘locked in,’ and can think clearly, but are completely paralyzed.” Less than ten percent of ischemic strokes are basilar LVOs.
Gunter was transported to Cumberland Medical Center in Crossville, where he was given a computerized tomography angiogram. When that imaging showed an abnormality, CMC notified the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Fort Sanders Regional, the hub of Covenant Health’s stroke hospital network. Dr. Woodward reviewed the images, and requested Gunter be immediately transported to FSRMC. There, he advanced a catheter from the right groin into Gunter’s brain, suctioning out the clot before the damage was permanent.
“It is truly remarkable that he has fully recovered,” said Dr. Woodward.
For Gunter, even the firefight that robbed him of his eye all those years ago paled in comparison to the stroke he suffered. “The shrapnel knocked me blind, and I couldn’t see anything for two or three days,” said Gunter who spent the next nine months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “I know I don’t want another stroke. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It is rough – takes every bit of strength out of you.”
“When Dr. Woodward told me that most of the time [the stroke Gunter had] causes death, I felt like passing out. I got weak in the knees,” said Linda Gunter. “I think Dr. Woodward is wonderful. I liked the way he talks to you and explains things and I liked the way he saved my husband. He did a good job. He took care of him.”