By JANE NORDBERG, DMG Writer
LAURIUM — March 30 started out like any other day for Gene Niedholdt.
He dropped his wife, Peg, off at work around 7:30 a.m. and headed to his office at Dave’s Auto Service, the Laurium business he owns and operates.
Gene answered a phone call from a customer wanting an estimate on a vehicle repair, but found he suddenly couldn’t figure out what it was the customer was talking about.
“You better take this,” he said to his daughter, Laura, who works by his side in the office. “This guy is giving me his phone number and I can’t understand him.”
Laura looked at the work order her father had started to fill out and knew immediately that something was very wrong.
“Normally he does his own work orders,” she said. “But within the first 20 minutes of coming to work he couldn’t read what he had written, and he couldn’t understand the words the customer was saying.”
In losing the ability to understand words, Gene was experiencing one of the seven main symptoms of a stroke. Laura finished with the customer and immediately called her mother to tell her that something was wrong.
“Get him to the hospital,” Peg said quickly, and when Laura told her dad to get in the car, he didn’t argue.
“He was more concerned for the business, but I was concerned about his health,” Peg said.
She had every right to be concerned.
Gene had experienced a stroke, the number one cause of adult disability and the third leading cause of death in the United States.
According to the American Stroke Foundation, a stroke is sometimes referred to as a brain attack because it impacts the brain in much the same way a heart attack impacts the heart. Every stroke is different and is largely dependent upon the area of the brain affected and the length of time that area is without oxygen.
An hour after his first symptoms appeared, Gene lost the ability to speak.
Oddly, Gene had none of the other symptoms typically associated with a stroke: sudden weakness in the limbs, numbness on one side of the face or body, loss of vision in one eye, having trouble walking, feeling dizzy and losing balance and severe headache.
“The doctors must have asked me 20 times if I had a headache, but I felt absolutely fine,” Gene said.
Physicians at Keweenaw Memorial Medical Center in Laurium responded immediately by administering a battery of tests and consulting with neurologists at Marquette General Hospital.
Gene was diagnosed with Broca’s Aphasia, named after Paul Broca (1824-1880), a French neurologist who first concluded that the integrity of the left frontal convolution was responsible and necessary for articulate speech. That region of the brain is thus named “Broca’s convolution,” or the “motor speech area.”
Gene was kept for observation overnight, but experienced no further symptoms. He was released on Saturday, when he promptly returned to the shop to check on the business left in Laura’s care all day Friday.
“Just to show you how dedicated these guys are,” he said of the employees in his shop. “They all came in to see if she needed any help. The community support has been absolutely terrific.”
Gene was lucky in that his symptoms were relatively mild at the onset and have gradually diminished. Physicians told the family that their quick action was key, as the longer the elapsed time before treatment, the greater the loss of brain function.
In some instances, a clot-busting drug can be administered to diminish the effects of a stroke. However, there is only a three-hour window in which the drug can be administered.
The Niedholdts declined the drug treatment for various reasons, but are confident their quick action helped to save Gene’s quality of life.
“They kept telling us that we did the right thing by bringing him in so quickly,” Peg said. “Time is really vital in responding to a stroke or a possible stroke.”
A CT scan showed the point when Gene’s brain was deprived of oxygen, but the cause may never be known. His recovery includes a strict sodium-free diet, visits to an occupational therapist twice weekly, a daily siesta and a general warning to slow down.
“I don’t know what to say except that we were truly blessed,” Peg said.
“Blessed that Laura acted so quickly, blessed to have the excellent care we did, and blessed to have loyal and caring employees and customers.”
No one knows that better than Gene.
“I’m here and able to function as well as I am because all of that came together,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”