When Dr. Sohun Desai, a Valley native and a neurosurgeon at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, was in training, he witnessed Rio Grande Valley children with serious neurological issues being transferred to hospitals outside the region for care. It had a snowball effect on their family, causing hardship that compounded the original diagnosis.
“I think all of us in the back of our mind have the goal of delivering the highest quality of neurosciences care locally in a way that patients don’t have that happen to them,” he said.
Now, Valley Baptist Health System is on the cutting edge of stroke and neurological care not only in the RGV, but across the nation. The experts in the medical center’s Neuroscience Institute routinely participate in clinical trials that continue to set the pace for endovascular stroke treatment throughout the United States.
“A lot of people dare to say that one of the most impactful treatments that has been discovered in neuroscience over the last 100 years is stroke thrombectomy,” said Dr. Wondwossen Tekle, director of stroke and neurocritical care for Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen. “Thrombectomy is the physical removal of the clot from the human brain using catheters and wires.”
From clinical studies to research leading to the expansion of the treatment window for some stroke patients, Valley Baptist Health System has continued to contribute to the evolving landscape of stroke care.
“A lot of our [cutting-edge] research has been published in great scientific journals and actually changes the guidelines for stroke treatment,” said Dr. Ameer E. Hassan, head of the Neuroscience Department at Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute. “I am very confident in our treatment here and I know that if you come [to Valley Baptist] with a stroke or neurological disease, you will get the best treatment possible.”
Stroke care is just one facet of Valley Baptist’s comprehensive Neuroscience Institute, which is dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of conditions and diseases of the brain and spine.
Dr. Victoria Parada, a neurohospitalist at Valley Baptist, is the founder of the Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute and served as its medical director from 2004 to 2016, pursuing the goal of serving the RGV’s multiple neurological needs.
“Historically, when I started here in the Valley in 2003, there was limited access to neurological services,” Parada said. “We strongly believe that this is a center that was built with the talents of different neurologists and their different areas of interest, but overall we work in unison as a team. It has been a magnificent experience.”
Through Parada’s hard work and the collaboration of talented colleagues, the Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute has significantly grown to a team of more than a dozen experts, including neurologists, neurohospitalists, endovascular neurologists, epileptologists, and neurosurgeons — all transforming the outcomes for the patients they serve.
“The highest standard of care is now the expectation, and that’s really our goal,” she said.
Neurological care at Valley Baptist is organized into different tiers to deliver seamless treatment for all patients who receive care. Parada is among three neurohospitalists dedicated to stroke care, sleep disorders, and general neurology consultations. Neurocritical care services include neurointerventional stroke physicians like Tekle and Hassan, who treat some of the region’s most difficult and complex strokes.
“They’re among the best neurointerventionalists in the entire United States,” Parada said.
Parada says that knowledge plays an important role in positive outcomes for neurological patients. To that end, Parada and her colleagues work hard to educate the community on the signs, symptoms, and treatments for a wide array of neurological conditions, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases.
When dealing with stroke, Tekle says that educating local residents to understand their role in reducing their risk factors is a critical component of stroke care. Understanding risk factors is essential for all patients, especially those with a family history of stroke, Tekle says, adding that preventive interventions such as quitting smoking, moderating alcohol, eating right, exercising regularly, and other lifestyle changes can greatly reduce an individual’s stroke risk.
“If you have a stroke, coming to the hospital early is technically a preventive strategy because if you catch the fire early, you can put out the fire early and prevent long term damage,” he said.
Though the team-based treatment approach at the Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute includes many people — from the physicians, nurses, staff, and administration — Parada emphasizes the importance of the patient and their family becoming a part of the team. Patients must be willing to follow treatment and understand their disease, while their loved ones must support them throughout their journey.
Technology also plays a major role in neurological care at the Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute. Because time is of the essence when it comes to stroke treatment — data show that patients lose 2 million neurons every minute that treatment is delayed — the Valley Baptist Neuroscience Institute also utilizes advanced artificial intelligence to help improve patient outcomes.
The AI software in conjunction with advanced imaging allows the team to quickly determine the areas of the brain that can be saved by mechanical intervention, improving treatment times, and providing neurologists with critical information to rapidly plan a course of treatment.
Though the COVID-19 surge in the RGV hasn’t changed the quality of care being delivered at Valley Baptist, it has required extra steps to keep patients safe. Desai referenced protocols for rapid testing upon admission, and using an operating room solely dedicated to COVID-positive patients with an antechamber and sterilization protocols. Desai, Parada, Hassan, and Tekle all mentioned the growing link between COVID-19 and strokes, noting that COVID has been shown to cause development of microthrombi (small clots), which can travel to the lung and obstruct blood flow to the lung — called pulmonary embolism, or travel to brain circulation and cause ischemic stroke. This seems to be happening to those affected with severe COVID symptoms, but can occur suddenly in any age group.
An unexpected side effect of COVID-19 is people’s avoidance of hospitals for fear of being exposed to the infection, but making the decision to delay care for a medical emergency such as stroke can lead to long-term disability or even death, Tekle said.
“We understand the anxiety around potential exposure for COVID-19 infection if they come to the hospital,” he said. “We want the public to be assured that we do have a number of strategies in place to protect them from COVID-19 infection while taking care of them.”
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