Stroke, CVA or Brain Attack

Along with heart attacks, strokes are a major cause of death and disability.


At approximately 5:00 p.m., we received a call to a home. A 9-year-old girl needed an ambulance. When we arrived, the little girl was semi-conscious. The mother said the girl had been watching television when she ran into the kitchen, clutching her head and screaming that her head hurt. We treated the girl and quickly transported her to the hospital. Hours later, she was pronounced dead. She had suffered a ruptured aneurysm (a type of stroke) in the brain.


When we hear of someone suffering a stroke, we tend to think the person was old. In most cases this is true, but strokes can happen to anyone, at any time.

Early recognition of a stroke is crucial. The sooner you realize you are having a problem and the sooner you seek medical aid, the better your chances of surviving and/or reducing the amount of damage to the brain.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke is also called a CVA (Cerebral Vascular Accident) and more recently a brain attack. When the blood flow in a blood vessel in the brain is interrupted, the part of the brain that the blood vessel supplied will not receive the blood flow and the oxygen that the blood carries. As a result, the brain cells die.

What happens during a stroke?

A stroke can happen in different ways, but each way is equally dangerous because the brain cells die. When the brain dies, the rest of the body follows.

Embolism. As we age, the inside of our arteries can build up a plaque. As a result, all of our arteries in every part of our body gradually get smaller. Sometimes pieces of plaque break off and float around in the blood stream. Free-floating pieces of plaque can lodge in the smaller artery, resulting in a blockage that stops or slows blood flow. The brain cells downstream of the blockage do not receive blood and oxygen, and they soon die.

Blockage. In many cases, the arteries of the brain build up enough plaque to block the artery. When a blockage restricts the blood flow, the brain cells downstream of the blockage are starved for oxygen and die.

Aneurysm. A blood vessel in the brain can develop a weak spot that forms a bulge, just like a weak spot in a balloon. A person can develop one of these weak spots as a child and yet die of old age, never knowing it was there. However, if the weak spot breaks or ruptures, blood leaks out. It may continue to leak until a pool of blood forms. The skull is encased in bone (a solid material) and cannot expand. Therefore, the leaking blood creates an expanding pool that puts pressure on the brain. If there is enough pressure, the brain will stop functioning and the person will die.

Aneurysms can happen to people of any age, including children.

Signs and symptoms

What to do


Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)

A TIA is also called a little or "mini" stroke. In a TIA, plugged arteries can restrict blood flow in the brain, just as in a stroke. The difference is that, in a TIA, the blood flow is not restricted long enough to kill the brain cells and the person returns to normal.

The person may have the signs and symptoms of a stroke, but the effects are only temporary. They may last for hours or minutes. If this happens to you or anyone you know, seek medical aid as fast as you can. The personís returning to normal does not mean that things are okay. The person has a serious problem that needs medical attention.


My mom was visiting me from out of town. Although she had slept in the same room for a week, one evening she called me into the room and asked where the light switch was. She was looking straight at it when she asked me.

Since my mom had not had any problems finding the switch on previous days, I asked her how she was feeling. She complained of a funny feeling in her head but she had no pain. Against her protests and even though she did not seem confused any longer, I took mom to the hospital. Tests showed that she was having problems with her circulation and she was having a TIA. Thatís how subtle these emergencies can be.


Copyright 1999 Safety Health Publishing Inc.

Martin Lesperance is a fire fighter/paramedic, best selling author and keynote speaker on the topic of injury prevention. His talks are humorous but still have a strong underlying message. Contact him at or (403) 225-2011.