TV Journalist Doug McConnell Hopes You Won't Follow His Example

A “stroke of luck” that could have turned tragic 

GREENBRAE, CA — Television journalist Doug McConnell did just about everything wrong on Father’s Day, 2012, and lived to tell the tale. But even though he calls it a “stroke of luck,” he hopes you’ll heed his Father’s Day reminder to act FAST when a stroke strikes.

Headed out for a solitary hike on the Corte Madera Ridge with his dogs, he realized their barking didn’t sound quite right. His own voice sounded odd too, almost disembodied. He had to concentrate to move his left arm and there was numbness along the length of his leg. All are classic stroke symptoms, but McConnell told himself it was nothing. He’d gone to the Emergency Department (ED) with a few similar symptoms recently that turned out to be a false alarm, so he convinced himself this was probably another pinched nerve.  Yet when he stopped for coffee, he dropped his wallet three times. His hand was numb.

Still in denial, McConnell climbed into the car, concentrated on driving, and noticed that the fingers of his left hand were not working correctly. He continued up the steep slope of Summit Drive, parked and hiked about a quarter of a mile, then inadvertently dropped the dog leash in a pile of leaves. Finally, he called his older son Nicolas and his wife Kathy to tell them he was driving home because he felt strange. It wasn’t until he arrived home that he called his family doctor and described his symptoms.

The reaction shocked him into action.

“You are 90 minutes into the window for treatment if this is a stroke!” his doctor told him.  “Have your wife drive you to the hospital right now. I’ll call ahead.”

By the time they reached the ED at Marin General Hospital, the stroke team was waiting. Dr. John Panagotacos, the on-call neurologist and stroke specialist, ordered an MRI of the brain to help evaluate McConnell; the image left no doubt he had suffered a small stroke in the back part of the right side of his brain. 

Sitting in the hospital on Father’s Day, 2012, McConnell thought about all the things he did wrong that day, ignoring symptom after symptom, waiting before calling his doctor. Miraculously, he was still okay, but that was purely a “stroke of luck,” he admits.

Many people aren’t so lucky—particularly when they ignore vital warning signs. Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability and the third leading cause of death in the U.S. (270,000 annually.) Even individuals who are in excellent shape—like McConnell—can’t avoid one inevitable risk: increasing age. McConnell was 67:  the risk of stroke doubles every decade after the age of 55.  Eighty percent of strokes occur after age 50, and a large percentage of Marin adults are now in the prime risk category.

Knowing what to do if you think you’re having a stroke is critical. It’s a race against time since the best treatment options take place in a window of approximately 3 hours from onset of symptoms. Where patients go for care also is critical since hospitals vary widely in their ability to administer appropriate treatment speedily. That’s why Marin General Hospital has invested in state-of-the-art stroke care, becoming the county’s only Certified Primary Stroke Center that can treat all types of stroke on site.

If you suspect you or a loved one are having a stroke, you can use this simple mnemonic device, called FAST, to decide what to do:

  • Face:  Does one side of the face droop when the person tries to smile?
  • Arms: When they try to lift both arms, does one arm drift upwards?
  • Speech: When they try to repeat a phrase, do their words sound strange or slurred?
  • Time: If any of these symptoms are present, call 9-1-1 immediately. The faster the person gets care, the better the outcome will be.

McConnell, who hadn’t taken a day of sick leave in 20 years— seems an unlikely stroke candidate, possible proof it can happen to anyone. But like many, he chose to ignore some warning signs. Trim, fit and religious about check-ups, he still noticed that his blood pressure popped up higher than normal when he was active. He was taking medication to control it.

“This was a shot across the bow, a wake-up call to dig deeper,” he says. Now, he is following his doctor’s recommendation to lower his cholesterol even further by upping his medication—and switching to low-fat lattes. He’s taking the advice he now gives others: “Eat well, sleep well, monitor your cholesterol and live a quality life. And if something is out of the ordinary, pay close attention to it.”

He’s kept his sense of humor. “I have been a little shaken by this—I always wanted to live to be 120,” he says. “As the iconic Jack Lalanne said some months before he died, ‘I can’t die—it will ruin my image.’”

He’s also adamant about the need for a stroke center that can handle all types of strokes so that patients don’t waste critical time before being treated. ”I’m so very, very lucky that we have a great hospital right here. We need to support it.”