Raul Zecheru had just pulled up to a nursing home in Marlborough and hopped out of the driver’s seat of his Community EMS ambulance when he felt a little dizzy.
The 49-year-old EMT steadied himself on the hood of the rig but didn’t think too much of it.
That’s when a colleague noticed the right side of Zecheru’s face was drooping. He asked if Zecheru was OK.
“I said yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m gonna be fine,” Zecheru recalled. “My coworker knew right away, that’s a stroke.”
Minutes later, Zecheru was riding in the back of an ambulance, no longer in his role as an EMT, but now a patient.
Without the help of his colleagues and Jasmeet Singh, his doctor at UMass Memorial Medical Center, he may not have been around for his wife or toddler son.
“I’m alive. All I can say is thank you very much to the doctor, for the team, for the whole hospital because without these guys I was maybe dead or maybe I was paralyzed,” Zecheru said.
UMass Memorial Medical Center has been certified by the Joint Commission as an Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center, the highest level designation a hospital can receive for stroke care.
It is the only stroke center for Central and Western Massachusetts. Boston hospitals that are certified Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Centers include Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center.
The hospital uses catheters to perform a thrombectomy to remove a blood clot in its stroke care procedures. Doctors insert the catheter through the groin to reach the clot and pull it out, a minimally invasive and cutting-edge procedure, said Singh, who specializes in neurointerventional radiology and is also an associate professor.
Zecheru had a clot in his brain and a “very tight” narrowing of his carotid artery, making his case more difficult.
“I went and had a very extensive discussion with his wife and we hugged, we both had tears in our eyes and I explained to her everything,” Singh said. “He was still under anesthesia and I was not sure how he’s going to recover...I saw the little 2-year-old, too. I was concerned. I want this person to recover so well.”
Singh believes Zecheru’s condition was caused by smoking. Zecheru said he has quit cigarettes.
“All I remember is I see the doctor. He said OK, we’re going to have the surgery right now,” Zecheru recalled in an interview this week at UMass Memorial. “After I find out from the doctor actually what was the real problem with me.”
Zecheru and his wife moved to America from Romania 11 years ago and have no other family here.
“For my wife, after she found out what could happen, it was hard," he said. “For me, it was easy thanks to the doctor.”
Sitting across from Zecheru at UMass Memorial’s university campus, Singh smiled.
“I’m just glad to see him,” he said. “It warms up my heart when we have outcomes that are fantastic."
Zecheru had the stroke on May 15. He was in the hospital for one week and in rehab for another week.
“The doctor mentioned to my wife I’m gonna have a speech problem. But for some reason, I guess the doctor did a great job," Zecheru—who is still in speech therapy but communicates well—said with a laugh. “I accept my speech delay once in a while. I have to think twice. But other than that, I don’t see any problem...Knock on wood and thanks to the doctor and the team and the hospital, here I am.”
Riding in his company’s ambulance as a patient was surreal for Zecheru.
“It’s weird because you transport [patients] every day,” Zecheru said. “Being yourself in that position, of course, I was trying to stand up and my coworker said you have to stay like this.”
Zecheru has been cleared to drive but has not returned to work yet.
Singh said UMass doctors are considered leaders in stroke care. The team is on track to treat more than 180 strokes this year.