‘The clock is ticking’: Tama pastor tells his story of surviving a stroke

Special Reports

TAMA, Iowa — This is the story of my only brother, one that I am glad to be able to help tell.

It happened on a Saturday last August. Pastor Warren Riley was at the St. Paul Lutheran Church practicing his sermon to deliver the next day on Sunday.

“I was practicing my message for Sunday. It was just normal Saturday practice,” said Warren. “The second time through, I started having unexplained problems. I started drooling from my bottom lip. Somehow I ended up right here on the floor.”

On the floor he realized his hand was behind his back, though he could not feel his left hand. He later tried to locate a scripture in his Bible, and after turning back and forth with no success, he decided to go home and figure out what was wrong. He drove the pickup a few blocks home.

“That caused me more problems when I tried to pull in the garage. I didn’t know why I needed to pull in the garage, I just couldn’t straighten it out enough,” said Warren. “That’s when Shelly realized I was home, when I smashed the mirror of the pickup into the garage door. That was my way of announcing to the family that I was home.”

His wife, Shelly, ran out to the garage but could not open Warren’s door. It was wedged against the house.

“I got into the passenger side and something came to mind. If somebody is having a stroke, you ask them to smile,” said Shelly. “So I asked him to smile, and he couldn’t because the left side of his face was drooping.

After that, the local Tama ambulance service took Warren to Grinnell around 30 minutes away to UnityPoint Health Medical Center. 

“I was following the ambulance. I was really praying that he would recover and be okay. I called some good friends from the church and I told them briefly what’s going on, that we thought he had a stroke, please pray,” said Shelly. She said she was encouraged “because they were loading him up in the ambulance and he was talking a mile a minute, like he normally does.”

Warren was evaluated at Grinnell and given a drug to break up the blood clot. An air ambulance helicopter arrived from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The physician in the emergency room, Dr. Clayton Francis, told Shelly, “The clock is ticking,” referring to the window of time they had to remove the clot to prevent damage to Warren’s brain. “We only have a certain amount of time before there’s too much damage, and the damage of the brain is not reversible.”

Warren said he remembers the flight to Iowa City. He was telling the medical team in the helicopter the points of his sermon he planned to preach the next day. He also recalls how the sun was in his eyes flying around mid-day. 

“The guy in the chopper blocked the sun for me,” said Warren. “He told me when we land there’s a whole bunch of people coming out to meet you.”

Once at the Iowa City hospital, Warren was asked to sit in a chair. And the team began its work. 

“I remember the procedure. I wasn’t on the table, I was sitting up,” said Warren. “They needed my head straight so they could somehow see where they were going in my brain and it was excruciatingly painful.”

Dr. Kathleen Dlouhy is a neurosurgeon at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She and the team performed what is called a mechanical thrombectomy.

“This is a procedure where we go to the vessels in the body usually through the groin area. We feed some catheters all the way up to the vessels in the brain,” said Dlouhy. “We can use either a little stent device that grabs the clot or we can use a suction device that we put up there as well and we can pull this clot out.”

After a couple of nights in the hospital, Warren came hope with very slight effects for a day or so before he returned to normal.

Dlouhy said that Warren’s story is becoming more common at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Last year they did 172 of the procedures like they did on Warren.

The University of Iowa enrolled Warren in a study to understand how he was able to recover. He has participated in a Zoom call with doctors there. He was also asked questions to test his memory to see if it was still working.

I had the chance to thank both doctors on behalf of our family. Both insisted it was a total team effort involving many people.

“Just want to make sure you thank the team because it’s a team effort,” said Dr. Francis. “Without the team, I’m nothing.”

Warren and Shelly both realize the hand their faith and prayer played in the treatment and recovery.

“Thats what one of our friends said, ‘God was really looking out for you. Got you the right place at the right time,’” said Warren.

“It’s good for people to recognize when someone is having a stroke because in Warren’s case, he didn’t realize he was having a stroke,” said Shelly.

From the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa, here is a list of symptoms to watch for and what to do:

Spot a stroke F.A.S.T.

FACE DROOPING
Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

ARM WEAKNESS
Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

SPEECH DIFFICULTY
Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?

TIME TO CALL 9-1-1
If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.

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