33-year-old suffers abnormal stroke at Chicago gym; diagnosed with life-threatening condition that only impacts 1% of the population
During his stroke workup at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Alex McKeown was found to have an aortic root aneurysm and a bicuspid aortic valve (BAV), which affects about 1% of the population
CHICAGO - With a demanding and stressful job, Alex McKeown made exercise a priority for his health. The 33-year-old works in investing, where he negotiates and closes deals for large retail companies. On average, McKeown was working 65 to 70 hours per week, until a routine trip to the gym changed everything.
On May 9, McKeown was participating in a workout class at a downtown Chicago fitness center when he started feeling lightheaded, hot and sweaty. He sat down on the floor, and the fitness instructor offered McKeown water and orange juice. By the time paramedics arrived and determined he should go to the hospital, McKeown was losing control of his left arm and left leg and couldn’t stand up on his own.
“I originally told myself to just push through it, but I had two women around me – the fitness instructor and another employee – and I’m so thankful they were there and kept a watchful eye on me, because they called 911,” said McKeown. “Without them, I likely would have gone home to sleep it off, and I probably wouldn’t be talking or walking right now.”
McKeown was rushed via ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where a CT scan confirmed he was having a stroke. Even while he was in the emergency department, McKeown tried taking a work call about an impending deal he was negotiating.
“I told the medical team, ‘One second – I need to take this call.’ When they realized it wasn’t important, they told me, ‘You’re having a stroke, you need to get off the phone.’”
McKeown was taken into emergency surgery where Ali Shaibani, MD, chief of neurointerventional radiology at Northwestern Medicine, performed a minimally invasive procedure called a thrombectomy to remove a blood clot blocking blood flow into the right side of McKeown’s brain and quickly restore circulation. McKeown’s brain function returned to normal immediately after the procedure. Six days after his stroke, McKeown was discharged from Northwestern Memorial with a new lease on life, and new learnings about his health.
“Alex’s case is remarkable because we typically don’t see strokes in his age group,” said Dr. Shaibani. “You lose about 1.9 million brain cells per minute with a stroke, so we moved very quickly to clear out a large blood clot that was blocking his artery. Additionally, Alex was found to have some cardiac issues and a dilated aorta. So, this plugged him into care that he may not have otherwise received for these other conditions.”
“During his stroke workup, Alex was found to have an aortic root aneurysm and a bicuspid aortic valve (BAV), which affects about 1% of the population. We have already scheduled him for surgery to address this life-threatening condition,” said Chris Mehta, MD, cardiac surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.
BAV, the most common congenital heart disorder, is twice as likely to occur in men than women. While the cause of BAV is unclear, experts believe that it develops in the earliest stages of pregnancy and can be hereditary. Like McKeown, many patients with BAV have an enlargement of the aorta, the major blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. If left untreated, the aneurysm can enlarge to the point of rupture.
McKeown had open heart surgery this summer with S. Christopher Malaisrie, MD, director of the comprehensive center for aortic disease at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, a national destination for BAV treatment, and the source of the stroke was determined.
“Alex's aortic valve was congenitally abnormal and he had a very rare malformation called unicuspid aortic valve. The valve had a mass that was likely the cause of his stroke. The valve was not repairable as originally planned, so I did a Ross procedure for him, where we give patients a new heart valve using parts of their own body," said Dr. Malaisrie.
McKeown is now being treated by a comprehensive care team at Northwestern Medicine. He started drinking more water, eating more vegetables and established a healthier work-life balance by slowing down and taking more breaks. He even returned to the gym and is regaining his strength and momentum.
“People think, this won’t happen to me, but guess what? I thought that too,” said McKeown. “The biggest lesson I learned from this experience is that if you think something is wrong, seek medical attention right away. Trust me, it’s worth it. If it wasn’t for the fitness staff at Studio Three – River North, and my incredible care team at Northwestern Medicine, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“It’s important to get your annual checkups. If your doctor hears a heart murmur, that should be followed up with an echocardiogram. If someone else in the family has bicuspid aortic valve, that’s also an indication to get further cardiac workup,” said Dr. Malaisrie.
“The important message here is that it’s almost never normal to not be able to move your arm, move your leg, or have a facial droop or vision problems. You should never ignore it,” said Dr. Shaibani. “Alex likely wouldn’t have made what is essentially a normal, neurologic recovery if he hadn’t made it to the hospital and been treated so quickly.”
For more information about Northwestern Medicine’s neurology and cardiovascular programs, visit nm.org.