'I Felt Like I Was Getting Weak': Kids Have Strokes, Too
How a drug approved for use in adults helped an 8-year-old-boy recover from a stroke
By Ashley Antle
March 28, 2022, was coming to a close like any other ordinary day for the Chavez-Llanas family. Salvador and Laura Chavez-Llanas were upstairs bathing their youngest of three sons while their older two were playing video games downstairs. In a moment, their peaceful evening turned to chaos.
A cry for help rang out from downstairs. It came from Salvador and Laura’s middle son. Laura rushed to check on him, only to find her oldest, 8-year-old Santiago, on the floor. He was conscious but drooling, and unable to stand up or move the right side of his body. His speech was slurred, and one side of his face drooped.
Laura yelled for her husband’s help. He called 911, and an ambulance arrived within minutes to carry Santiago to the emergency room at Cook Children’s Medical Center. That’s where Laura met Rachelle Herring, M.D., a pediatric neurologist.
“Santiago was pretty severely impaired at that point,” Dr. Herring explained. “He had a dense hemiplegia, which means he really could not move the right side of his body at all. He had very slurred speech but, fortunately, he was alert and understood everything that was going on.”
Santiago quickly underwent imaging tests of his brain. They confirmed he was having an ischemic stroke. This type of stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood in a vessel in the brain, cutting off oxygen and disrupting the function controlled by that part of the brain.
“We were just playing our Nintendo Switch and that's when my controller fell," Santiago said. "I started reaching for it, but then I felt like I was getting weak in my right side so I tried even harder to get it and then I fell down.”
Santi, as his mother calls him, has always been a healthy, active boy who loves playing basketball, swimming and riding bikes with his family. Never did his parents imagine their son would be one of the 5 in 100,000 kids each year ages 1 to 18 to have an ischemic stroke. It’s more common in newborns, occurring in 1 in 2,500 full-term infants during their first month of life.
“It was pretty shocking,” Laura said. “Your world as you know it just disappears. It’s so hard.”
Time was of the essence. With stroke, recovery is directly related to how quickly treatment can be administered. But stroke in children is so rare that the drug considered the gold standard treatment for adults has not been studied enough in kids to be approved for use in pediatric cases.
The medication, called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, breaks up blood clots. It’s administered through an IV with the goal of dissolving the clot within the vessel and restoring as much blood flow as possible. To be most effective in reversing damage, it must be administered within 4 ½ hours of the onset of stroke.
Although it’s considered off-label to use tPA to treat children, some hospitals administer the drug to pediatric patients after carefully weighing the risks and benefits.
“That’s what we did in the case of Santiago,” Dr. Herring said. “He came in very quickly after the stroke and I reached out to Dr. Marcela Torres, our hematologist who specializes in blood clots, about giving tPA. We’re basing our decision on the adult data that when the patient comes in within 4 ½ hours of an ischemic stroke, we think tPA can help restore the blood flow to the affected area of their brain."
Dr. Herring explained the risks of using the powerful drug to Santiago’s mom.
“At that point, I couldn’t say no,” Laura said. “Because I want to have my kid with me.”
It was the right call. Not long after receiving the drug Santiago’s symptoms began to resolve, and he was transferred from the ER to the pediatric ICU for monitoring. Because tPA is a blood thinner, patients are at risk of bleeding and must be watched closely. The stroke team also wanted to keep an eye on his neurological status and run tests to determine the cause of the stroke.
Images of Santiago’s brain showed inflammation of the blood vessels consistent with a condition called cerebral vasculitis.
“We don't know exactly what caused the vasculitis,” Dr. Herring said. “It could have been triggered by some type of prior infection. The body's immune system goes a little haywire and can cause irritation to the blood vessels in the brain.”
Santiago spent two weeks in the hospital, all the while making a remarkable recovery. By the time he was discharged he had only a mild facial droop and had regained all of his movement. He’s on medications to reduce inflammation in his blood vessels, as well as blood thinner to prevent more strokes, and will undergo more imaging tests in the future to make sure his vessels return to normal.
In the meantime, Santiago is enjoying being back home with his family and back to school part time.
Looking back, Laura recalls a few things her son told her that may have signaled something was wrong. A few days before the stroke, Santiago complained of not feeling well. He said he felt like he was going to pass out at school. When questioned in detail by his mother, the only word he could find to describe how he felt was “weird.” Now, Laura wants parents to know to listen to their kids and know the signs and symptoms of stroke.
“Look at your kids,” she said. “Look at how they're behaving, and if they tell you something hurts, pay attention to every single different thing.”
To spot the signs of stroke, remember the acronym BE FAST:
Balance - Is there a sudden loss of balance or coordination?
Eyes - Is there blurred or lost vision?
Face - Is one side of the face drooping or numb?
Arm - Is there weakness, numbness or loss of movement in the arms, legs or one side of the body?
Speech - Is speech slurred?
Time - If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
“The most important thing to know is that stroke happens in children,” Dr. Herring said. “If something is different or off about your kid, do not discount it. It could be something serious. Seek emergency care because even if they're not a candidate for tPA, sometimes they're a candidate for other therapies. The sooner we're able to see that patient and try to figure out what's causing the stroke, the better off their prognosis is going to be.”
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.