HOUSTON -

A first of its kind ambulance in the United States, the UTHealth mobile stroke unit, in partnership with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, is now on the streets of Houston. The ambulance is sent only to medical emergencies where the patient needs immediate treatment for symptoms of a stroke.

Once on scene, Dr. James C. Grotta, director of stroke research in the Clinical Institute for Research & Innovation at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, examines the patients and quickly gets them into the specialized ambulance, where a portable CT scanner will take a picture of the patient's brain.

Within minutes, Dr. Grotta will know whether the patient will need special drugs to prevent brain damage.

"I can give the clot-busting medicine right there to dissolve the blood clot to make the patient better, or if they're having bleeding I can lower the blood pressure right away," said Dr. Grotta, M.D., director of stroke research in the Clinical Institute for Research & Innovation at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.

The mobile stroke unit has been responding to calls for about two months and already is credited with saving lives.

"I'm 30, how can I have a stroke at this time? I never thought of it," said stroke patient Maureen Osaka.

Osaka was the first patient saved by the ambulance. She's walking, speaking and living normally today. But she knew something was wrong when classic stroke symptoms began one morning.

"I can't move this leg, then I feel like I am falling apart," Osaka recalled of the day she had the stroke. "I can't even raise it up, I was like, 'What is going on?'"

The mobile stroke unit rushed to her Houston home. Within minutes Osaka underwent a CT scan, confirming she was suffering a rare and fatal type of stroke.

Using web cameras, doctors back at the hospital were already making treatment plans.

"At the same time I'm on the ambulance evaluating the patient, one of my colleagues at the medical center is seeing me evaluate the patient and is making his own assessment," said Dr. Grotta.

Before the mobile stroke unit left the scene, Osaka was receiving life-saving, clot busting medicine that likely saved her life. Just days after the stroke, she was moving her left side, speaking clearly and walking on her own.

Grotta said it's crucial to know the symptoms of a stroke -- Use the FAST rule:

  • F = face -- look for signs of numbness
  • A = arm -- weakness or drifting
  • S = speech -- watch for trouble talking
  • T = time -- if you notice any of these symptoms, act fast

The quicker you get help, the better your chances are for a full recovery.