CLEVELAND — Every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke and every four minutes someone dies from one, according to the CDC.
For those who do survive, right now, the best treatment option is physical therapy.
But a Cleveland Clinic trial with promising results aims to offer an additional option to help stroke patients regain function.
The study is revolutionary in that it is the first trial in humans to combine brain surgery with physical therapy for stroke patients.
Doctors call the brain stimulation device the “pacemaker of the brain” and said the results are showing improvement metrics more than double what physical therapy alone can do.
For one patient, part of the trial is sharing his journey with the goal of evoking hope in others.
Something as simple as pushing an elevator button is miraculous for Joe Schwappach.
As he walked through the halls of the Cleveland Clinic, he remembered when he couldn’t talk or walk at all.
“Before, I couldn’t say nothing at all," he said. "I knew what I wanted to say. I couldn’t get it out."
The husband and father had a stroke three years ago.
“Couldn’t move my whole right side," he said.
The Grant Fork, Illinois native was injured while responding to a work emergency that meant he had to have surgery.
“And then I didn’t wake up from my surgery," Schwappach said.
It was a complete shock.
He said doctors still don’t know why the stroke happened.
“I woke up six days later in Omaha, Nebraska," he said. “I didn’t want to live. You know, so, but my wife helped me out with that a lot.”
In October 2019, he came to Cleveland for the first time to enroll in the Deep Brain Stimulation trial at the Cleveland Clinic.
“This study’s helped me out a lot," said Schwappach.
Current stroke treatment is physical therapy focused. There aren’t many options.
The months of rehab and teams of doctors and specialists at multiple hospitals have helped Schwappach improve drastically following his stroke.
“I wake up every day, it’s like man, I’m lucky to be alive, I guess," he said.
But he still couldn’t use his right hand fully and that is what he hoped to gain by taking part in the trial.
“Left hand’s fine," Schwappach said. "It’s just in my right hand and it goes up to about my wrist and that’s it. I have no sense of sensation in it unless I’m looking at it.”
The Cleveland Clinic said the groundbreaking study is the first-in-human trial where stroke patients undergo brain surgery and physical therapy in order to regain function.
Essentially, the surgery targets the part of the brain that controls coordination and works to stimulate pathways that are not dead after a patient has a stroke.
“There’s things that I couldn’t even fathom that I can do now," said Schwappach.
The results of the study show the improvement markers are more than double what stroke patients with only physical therapy display.
“I seemed to get better as soon as I got into the study," he said.
He’s seen a lot of progress with what he’s able to do with his right hand.
Schwappach said he wanted to shut down and shut out the world after his stroke but that now he's starting to feel more like himself again.
“It woke me up a bit," said Schwappach. “It puts a lot of perspective into my life."
He is regaining his self-confidence, independence and sense of purpose and he wants others to remember:
“Don’t take life for granted.”
Schwappach said he has so much to live for and at age 51, he has many more things he wants to cross off his bucket list.
For starters, he hopes to get back to hunting and fishing again soon.
Promising results from patients like Schwappach led to the FDA's approval for the trial to advance to Phase Two.
The Cleveland Clinic said the research will now expand to a number of other sites outside the clinic.
“It's really meaningful for the researchers to see that their work is making a real impact in someone's life," said Dr. Andre Machado, chairman of the Neurological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. "And it motivates us when a patient tells us this has been so relevant, this has been so meaningful to me that now I can do the things that I couldn't do before. It just makes us work harder."
This is just the beginning.
All of this is exciting for both patients and doctors when looking at the future of stroke care.