Michigan native and Neurosurgeon Dr. Gary Rajah joined Munson Healthcare in June 2020 to expand Munson Healthcare’s stroke center. Rajah is already making a difference in the lives of people impacted by a stroke in Northern Michigan by bringing endovascular stroke treatment to Munson, a lifesaving and life-changing service not previously offered in the region.

Stroke touches everyone’s life; the stroke patient, their family, their caretakers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every 4 minutes, someone dies of a stroke. The difference between death and survival is early action, making it critical to have robust stroke resources close to home.

Rajah is drawn to stroke care because of the critical nature of the specialty and the chance for amazing outcomes. Prior to joining Munson Healthcare’s stroke center, Rajah completed medical school and a seven-year neurosurgery residency at Wayne State University. He then completed a vascular/endovascular/neurosurgery fellowship at the University at Buffalo Gates Vascular Institute at the Canon Stroke & Vascular Research Center. After completing his fellowship, he chose to join Munson because it was important to him to serve a Michigan stroke program that did not yet offer in-house endovascular treatment.

The stroke care processes and treatments Rajah has spearheaded at Munson enable the retrieval of blood clots from the brain via a blood vessel. The procedure, called a thrombectomy, previously required a flight downstate. The treatment wasn’t available in Traverse City before Rajah joined the team, because it requires a highly trained neurosurgeon, and recruiting that talent has been challenging due to Munson’s rural location. Munson has been a Primary Stroke Center since 2012 due to its dedicated stroke-focused program, but the addition of 24/7 endovascular services makes Munson a candidate for Comprehensive Stroke Center designation by The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits healthcare organizations and programs.

“Time is critical when it comes to stroke treatment, so keeping patients in Northern Michigan will save lives and improve outcomes,” Rajah says. “We are able to truly change someone’s life in a matter of minutes. Patients improve on the table during the procedure. They go from not being able to talk to talking, and not being able to move an arm to moving their arm. This procedure has been around and has been regarded as a standard of care since trials in 2015. We were glad we could finally bring it to Northern Michigan.”

Shortly after the expanded stroke center opened in August 2020, the team immediately began working with interventional radiology techs, ICU nurses, anesthesia, pharmacy and the operating room to swiftly treat patients with thrombectomies and other endovascular approaches such as clipping aneurysms. An aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge that can grow in an artery, and as it does, it can leak blood into the spaces around the brain. Clipping an aneurysm is when a neurosurgeon opens the skull and places a tiny clip across the neck of the aneurysm to stop or prevent it from bleeding. Aneurysms that are completely clipped have an extremely low risk of regrowth, extending patient life expectancy.

Expanding the stroke program uniquely positions Munson Healthcare to offer 360 care (emergent, post-operative and rehab) to stroke patients in Munson’s entire service area in Northern Lower Michigan, but also includes bringing leading-edge stroke care closer to patients in the Upper Peninsula. Though patients from the Upper Peninsula and Munson’s locations in Grayling and Cadillac still need to be transferred to receive endovascular stroke treatment, the travel time to receive the procedure is significantly shorter than it was previous to the expansion of Munson’s stroke center. During a stroke, the brain loses, with each hour, as many neurons as it does in almost 3.6 years of normal aging. Every minute counts when it comes to saving a stroke patient’s life and making a significant impact on their ability to function post-stroke.

Rajah and the Munson Stroke Center team were able to make significant progress in a short amount of time to implement new stroke care processes and achieve excellent outcomes. This work took a lot of innovation on behalf of the hospital staff to get comfortable with the process. In addition to implementing new processes, the department also became one of only seven hospitals in the U.S. with a state-of-the-art imaging machine, the ARTIS Icono Biplane Angiography System, that enables high-precision 2D, 3D and 4D brain scans to enhance timely stroke diagnosis.

Munson plans to continue to expand its stroke program through the addition of a second ARTIS Icono Biplane Angiography System and recruiting additional physicians to keep Northern Michigan’s approximately 250 annual stroke patients close to home.

Find this and more articles about health and fitness Northern Michigan in the free, digital edition of MyNorth’s 2021 Medical Insider below; or get Medical Insider in print each year for free when you subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, delivered to your door each month.

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