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Article originally published Spring 2024 in The Monitor magazine.

In Good Hands

Joel Reid, Sue Johnson and Andy Evans play music for a patientEvery Friday, FMC chaplain Joel Reid spends his afternoons playing music for patients at Fairfield Medical Center. Joined by fellow chaplain Sue Johnson and FMC volunteer Andy Evans, Joel tries to visit as many patients as possible in the span of just a few hours, taking requests, offering prayer and relieving stress through music. 

Those visits are important to Joel, not just because he’s helping patients, but because there was a time when he feared he might never be able to play the guitar again. In the fall of 2022, Joel was hospitalized twice after he suffered a neck injury that caused a series of strokes, all of which occurred over the span of several weeks.

“When I got home from the hospital, one of the first things I did after hugging my kids was to grab my guitar,” Joel said. “I put my hands on it and realized that, yes, I still remember how to do this. Playing music is such a big part of my life, and to no longer be able to play would have been really sad for me.”

Joel’s injury occurred not from a car accident or a fall, but from coughing. Diagnosed with COVID-19 in September 2022, Joel said the virus left him with a lingering cough that could be very severe at times. “One evening, I had a really bad coughing fit where I was throwing my head forward and back really hard,” Joel said. “The next morning, I woke up and felt like I had been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat.”

VAD ExplanationJoel didn’t know it at the time, but the coughing had caused a vertebral artery dissection (VAD), or a tear in the neck artery that supplies blood to the brain. When a VAD occurs, blood enters the arterial wall and can form a clot that prevents blood flow to the brain.

When the pain didn’t go away after several days, Joel visited his chiropractor for an adjustment, thinking that he might have pulled a muscle. While the adjustment provided some relief, it was only temporary; the next day, Joel was back in the chiropractor’s office.

“He did another adjustment and when I got up to leave, the room started spinning,” Joel said. “My chiropractor was very quick to respond; he sat down with me and began checking me for stroke symptoms. At that point, I started to get tunnel vision, which felt like I was looking through a hole that was getting smaller and smaller until it was just a tiny dot.”

Joel was rushed to FMC’s Emergency Department, where his providers immediately ordered an MRI. The scan confirmed a VAD, as well as damage from two strokes, the first of which had occurred on the night of Joel’s coughing fit and the second while he was at the chiropractor’s office.

“My doctors told me I was very lucky,” Joel said. “In most instances like mine, patients either die or suffer a severe handicap or injury.”

VADs are rare and occur in approximately 1 in 100,000 people. Trauma such as coughing or vomiting, playing contact sports or even riding a roller coaster can all cause a VAD. Patients with a connective tissue disorder, such as fibromuscular dysplasia or other vascular disorders, are at a higher risk of dissection.

Joel was prescribed blood thinners to heal the tear, a process that can take several weeks. His providers warned him that he could suffer another stroke during this recovery period. Sure enough, two weeks after his first hospital stay, Joel was back in the Emergency Department after experiencing a stroke at home. He lost his vision for approximately an hour and remembers that it was Barbara Nelson, RN, who helped to keep him calm during that frightening experience.

“She put her hand on my shoulder and told me that it was going to be OK, that help was coming,” he said. “I felt like she truly cared for me and my situation. I experienced that same compassion from all of my caregivers.”

Joel recalls another moment while he was staying on the 4th floor when nurse Courtney Pettit, RN, provided him with the same comfort and reassurance that he had received from Barb.

“She was working on her computer and I asked her a question about one of the medical terms, and something about my voice made her turn around – she realized that I was scared in that moment,” Joel said. “She immediately dropped everything else she was doing and came over to me, pulled up a chair, sat down and made sure I understood every single term until she knew I was at peace.”

Joel was discharged after four days and has not suffered any more strokes since then. At his six-month check-up, an MRI confirmed that the VAD had healed itself completely, which meant Joel could stop taking his blood thinners. 

“When I saw that it had completely healed, it felt so great to have that peace – and to not have any lingering side effects,” Joel said.

He added that he’s thankful for the great care he received at FMC, from his nurses in the ED and on the 4th floor, to his providers, to his fellow chaplains, Sue Johnson and Josh Dexter, who provided constant support during both of his hospital stays.

“My experience had a big change in the way I am able to help our patients and their families as a chaplain – I can sit with them and use my own personal story to provide encouragement,” Joel said. “As a patient, it’s very scary to feel like you are a prisoner in your own body, that there is nothing you can do. It helps to have someone who can say, ‘I’ve been there, I know what you are going through.’ “

He added: “I always tell the patients, ‘You are in good hands here at FMC, and I know this because I was in good hands.’”

If you are experiencing signs of stroke, call 911! Every minute counts!

For more information about VAD, contact your primary healthcare provider. Visit our Stroke Care and Heart & Vascular pages for additional details.