Mark Sullivan awoke on Sept. 27, 2010 in his Albany home with an intense headache and feeling strange. It was 5:30 a.m. and he was about to drive his daughter Anna to the train station. “I said I don’t feel good at all,” Sullivan recalls. “My daughter could tell that something significant was happening and called 911.”
Sullivan, 64, who was the president of the College of Saint Rose in Albany, was rushed to Albany Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed him with a hemorrhagic stroke.
A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the surrounding brain. “Right before our eyes, he was getting clinically worse,” says Gary Bernardini, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of stroke and neurocritical care. “He went from being mostly awake to being sleepy. His speech became slurred, and he grew weaker on his left side. It didn’t look so good. I was concerned that the hemorrhage was expanding.”
Dr. Bernardini talked to Sullivan’s wife Kathleen and got consent to use an experimental drug called Recombinant Factor VIIa, which is used to stop the bleeding in hemophilia. In a hemorrhagic stroke, the drug works by stopping the bleeding from expanding.
Bernardini says he prescribes rFactor VIIa in very certain circumstances based on two large studies. He uses it if he sees a patient is getting worse, particularly if the bleed is deep inside the brain where expansion can cause devastating effects. He also does a CT scan with contrast dye that can predict if a clot will expand, another indication that rFactor VIIa might work.
Since introducing rFactor VIIa at Albany Med in 2007, Dr. Bernardini has used it about twice a year for hemorrhagic strokes. “In the right patient it can have a significant benefit,” he says.
For Sullivan, the drug was a lifesaver. Although he required therapy to regain use of his left side and to correct his gait, the effects of the stroke were relatively limited. “As a consequence of Dr. Bernardini’s skill and knowledge, I’m here today,” says Sullivan, who has since retired as president of Saint Rose and now serves as the college’s director of the Sullivan Institute for Higher Education Leadership. “It certainly worked for me.”