Gatlinburg man thankful for East Tennessee’s largest stroke network

He heard a voice. Someone was asking questions. As Albert Hernandez began to regain consciousness, he realized the voice was coming from a robot.

It sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it’s a modern day wonder Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center uses today. The tele-stroke robot is advanced technology that helped save a Gatlinburg man’s life.

Hernandez was on the job at Ober Gatlinburg one day last summer, when he noticed that a trash bin needed to be emptied out. He began the very common and simple task of moving trash to a cart so it could be wheeled away, when something uncommon happened.

“I started shaking and sweating,” Hernandez recalls, “and I just dumped it.

Hernandez told his supervisor he “felt funny.” Assuming it was a result of the summer heat, she took him to administrative offices to let him cool down, rehydrate, and have his blood pressure checked. After about 30 minutes, Hernandez felt much better, and decided to get back to work.

But it happened, again. He was overwhelmed with a strange sensation of dizziness and shaking. Hernandez didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew something wasn’t right. With permission from his supervisor, he left work so his wife could take him to a clinic.

By the time Hernandez got off the tram to meet his wife, he felt even worse. “I looked at her and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he says.

Suddenly, what was intended to be a simple visit to a clinic turned into an urgent drive to the emergency department at LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville. On the way, Hernandez complained that he couldn’t feel his left arm. He turned to his wife, and said, “Honey, I love you.”

Hernandez lost consciousness. Kelly Hernandez tried to keep her composure as she raced her husband to the hospital.

“I’ve never seen him unresponsive,” she says. “Just seeing him lie there, that was hard.”

Hernandez learned in the emergency department that he had suffered a stroke, and a team was already in place to help him

“They had a robot there next to my bed, and there was some person in there asking me questions,” Hernandez says. Stroke medicine was administered, and Hernandez heard the voice in the robot say, “Bring him to Fort Sanders, immediately.”

Hernandez was experiencing the benefits of the tele-stroke robot network, which allowed a neurologist at Fort Sanders Regional in Knoxville to virtually be in the same room as Hernandez at LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville via a video monitor, offering quick and early consultation that can make a critical difference in a patient’s chances of surviving a stroke with minimal effects.

“The next thing I knew I was being taken to Fort Sanders,” Hernandez says.

Because of the tele-stroke robot network, medical staff at Fort Sanders Regional were completely up to speed on Hernandez’ case. They were in place, and ready to care for him the very moment the ambulance arrive.

In the event of a stroke, minutes matter. Brain cells can die quickly, and that can easily lead to permanent brain damage.

“They were all there, waiting for me, working there, asking me questions,” Hernandez says. “There was always somebody there talking to me. They never left me alone.”

While his wife waited for reports on his progress throughout the process, she was comforted by comments she overheard in the lobby. People around her were saying Fort Sanders Regional is the best hospital for stroke patients.

Hernandez had the surreal experience of coming face to face with a doctor he’d previously only known through a robot. He also met someone from Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, who arranged for treatment to help him recover from the effects of the stroke. 

“Fort Sanders, Patricia Neal – I was surprised at how quickly they helped me come back,” Hernandez says. “Within a week or two I was already out of there and back at work.”

Once in a while, Hernandez still feels a few effects of his stroke. But he has a clean bill of health from his doctor, and his heart is strong. He may never understand what caused his stroke, but that’s okay. He’s just glad it’s part of his past, and that he still has a future to invest in the people he loves.

“I just want to be here for my wife and kids, and to live for as long as God lets me stay in the world,” Hernandez says. “I thank Fort Sanders and Patricia Neal for helping me come back to my wife and my family, and for allowing me to be with them, hopefully many years to come.”

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