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Florida Keys Stroke Victim Calls Recovery a ‘Miracle’

When you’ve just suffered an acute stroke [1], what happens next could mean the difference between facing a lifetime of disability or walking out of the hospital on your own two feet. Every minute matters.

For Gary Mace, a dive shop operator and boat captain in the Florida Keys town of Tavernier, time was on his side. It was June 24th and the 63-year-old was alone at home. His wife, Brenda, was just down the road at Conch Republic Divers [2], which the couple has owned for the past 17 years.

Suddenly, without warning, Mr. Mace started experiencing double vision and couldn’t move his left arm or leg.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I thought if I laid down, I’d start to feel better,” Mr. Mace said. “I’m an emergency first responder and I didn’t recognize that I was having a stroke.”

Barely able to speak, he called Brenda and whispered, “Help me.” She immediately hung up, dialed 911 and told the dispatcher that she thought her husband was having a stroke.

(Watch Now: Thanks to Dalia Lorenzo, M.D. and the stroke team at Baptist Hospital, Gary Mace was able to get back to doing what he loves most. For him, it was a miracle. Video by Anthony Vivian and Dylan Kyle.)

Within minutes, an ambulance arrived at the Mace’s home and he was rushed to the helipad at nearby Mariners Hospital. A medevac helicopter summoned from Marathon touched down a few minutes later and whisked Mace up to Baptist Hospital in Kendall, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Tavernier but just 20 minutes by air.

At the same time, Dalia Lorenzo, M.D., a neurologist with Baptist Health Neuroscience Center, was mobilizing the B.E.S.T. (Baptist Emergency Stroke Team) Stroke Team and making preparations so that Mr. Mace could be treated immediately. As soon as the helicopter landed, he was transported to the emergency room where Dr. Lorenzo and her team quickly assessed his condition.

Within 12 minutes of his arrival at Baptist Hospital, Mr. Mace was given an injection of Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA), a protein-based treatment for ischemic or thrombotic stroke, which is caused by a blood clot interrupting blood flow to a region of the brain.

“Although it can’t be used with all types of stroke victims, tPA is a powerful blood thinner that quickly breaks up the clot causing the stroke,” Dr. Lorenzo said. “But timing is critical, as tPA is effective only if administered within the ‘golden window’ of three to four-and-a-half hours of the onset of stroke symptoms.”

For Mr. Mace, the total elapsed time from the onset of his stroke to his treatment at Baptist Hospital was just one hour and 36 minutes. Given that he was transported from the Florida Keys, which takes time and close coordination between various agencies and facilities, the speed with which he was treated was nothing short of remarkable.

“Because we had such a good system in place, Mr. Mace was able to get here quickly and we were able to get him the treatment he needed to prevent any permanent disability from his stroke,” Dr. Lorenzo said.

Within an hour of receiving tPA, his double vision cleared up and he started regaining motion in his arm and leg. Two days later, he walked out of the hospital and returned to Tavernier. No physical therapy was required, and he was able to return to work shortly afterwards.

Gary Mace, owner of Conch Republic Divers in Tavernier, Florida, diving in the Florida Keys

“As a dive shop owner, dive instructor and boat captain, not being able to walk or talk would have been a life-changer for me,” said Mr. Mace, who loves nothing more than interacting with his customers and helping them explore the underwater wonders of the Florida Keys. “The fact that I’m here 10 weeks later talking to you and going diving again – it really is a miracle.”

Mr. Mace agrees with those who say TPA is a miracle drug, but believes there’s more to it than that.

“Yes, it’s a miracle drug, but it’s also a gift from God,” he said. “The miracle occurred because God gave somebody the intelligence to create the drug. It was a miracle because the helicopter was able to fly that day, which isn’t always the case here in the Keys where the weather can change quickly. And it was a miracle that I was able to receive tPA within 12 minutes of landing at Baptist.”

His eyes well up as he recalls what a blessing it was once he regained mobility in his arm and leg and he knew he was going to be okay. And he is forever grateful for the care he received at every step of the way.

“I’m just so thankful for Baptist, for God, and for the opportunity to be here today to tell you my story,” Mr. Mace said. “I really appreciate everything that Baptist did for me – everybody was so professional and caring. Words can’t express my gratitude.”