World's first study on impact of coronavirus on stroke survivors like Wigan man

A charity has announced today it is funding the world’s first study to determine the long-term impact of coronavirus on stroke survivors.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 11:00 am

The lives of Michael Pitcher and his mother Bev Beckett, from Scholes, have been turned upside-down since he contracted coronavirus.

While 28-year-old Michael has Down’s syndrome, Bev says he was a “fully functioning young man, albeit it with limited speech” and a member of a special needs football team.

But he became unwell for a couple of days in November and tested positive for coronavirus.

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Michael Pitcher and his mother Bev Beckett
Michael Pitcher and his mother Bev Beckett

Bev, 62, had to call an ambulance for Michael when his breathing became very shallow and his lips turned blue, and he was taken to the A&E department at Wigan Infirmary.

She said: “Doctors told us he had Covid pneumonia which was in both lungs. After a week of having his oxygen levels monitored on the Covid ward, I was called by a physiotherapist at the hospital who asked if Michael usually had weakness on his left side. A subsequent CT scan showed he’d had a massive frontal lobe stroke.

“Michael recovered from Covid and was still on oxygen but transferred to the stroke ward. At this point, his left eye was closed, he had no movement on his left side and he was very weak. He was being tube-fed and still on oxygen. Eventually he was given thickened liquids and thankfully within two weeks he was eating and drinking normally.”

Michael was discharged from hospital on January 6, but he now cannot use his left side.

Bev said: “Doctors told me they suspect that Michael’s stroke was caused by Covid-19 As well as his mobility, the stroke has also left him very emotional and he cries at the smallest thing. Because of his Down’s syndrome, Michael didn’t understand that physiotherapy would benefit him so he wouldn’t co-operate.

“A learning disability physiotherapist will work with him when he’s ready to go back to the day centre he usually attends.

“I’m currently desperate to be moved from our flat as there is no room for the hoists and equipment that Michael desperately needs. He is having to share a bedroom with me.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there have been widespread reports of adults with the virus having strokes.

So the Stroke Association is now funding a new study, amid concerns the virus may be causing more severe strokes in patients who doctors are struggling to treat.

It is thought the virus could be increasing the chance of blood clots forming in the brain and blocking blood flow.

The Stroke Association is funding this research to investigate the difference the virus could make to stroke recoveries, which are already at risk due to disruption to stroke services caused by the pandemic.

The study will establish which differences in patients with and without the virus may influence their needs for treatment and care, including how to avoid the risk of having further strokes.

Researchers at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) will follow up to 4,000 stroke survivors, with and without Covid-19, from across 13 emergency stroke units. Stroke recovery, rehabilitation and health will be tracked for up to 18 months after their stroke.

They will collect and assess comprehensive, specialist medical information from stroke patients, including brain scans, blood samples and measures of disability.

The findings will help to understand how Covid-19 impacts stroke recovery and which treatments might best support survivors’ recoveries.

Lead researcher Dr Richard Perry said: “Research that compares stroke in patients with and without Covid-19 is essential to understand if Covid-19 results in more severe strokes, where survivors will need more support to recover from its devastating effects.

“While redeployed to stroke wards at the start of the pandemic, I would see patients admitted with unusual strokes, who would then go on to have a positive Covid-19 test.

“The findings from this study will inform decisions about the most effective treatment and the rehabilitation needs of this group of patients, including prevention of recurrent stroke. We already know that from the moment a person has a stroke or mini-stroke they are at substantial increased risk of further strokes.

“We’ve come a long way since the start of the pandemic. I’m incredibly proud of stroke doctors and researchers throughout the UK who generously gave their time to contribute to the early stages of our study on the impact of Covid-19 on stroke, when we had no resources and were entirely dependent on their goodwill. This much-needed funding means we can continue the urgent work.”

There are more than 1.2m stroke survivors in the UK. However, it is predicted the number of stroke survivors aged 45 and over could reach 1.4m in 2025 and 2.1m in 2035.

Dr Rubina Ahmed, research director at the Stroke Association, said: “Stroke is a leading cause of adult disability in the UK and the second biggest killer in the world.

“It’s extremely concerning that we’re seeing strokes happening in ways we have not seen before. This research is absolutely critical in understanding and treating stroke after Covid-19, to help reduce the devastating effects and ultimately improve lives.

“Covid-19 is here to stay, so it’s vital we can prevent and treat strokes linked with the virus. The pandemic has shattered our fund-raised income and is threatening research that drives life-changing breakthroughs in stroke care. As a result of the pandemic, we have had to halve our budget for stroke research.

“Research improves treatment and care for people affected by stroke so they can live their best lives possible, and that’s why stroke research is worth saving.

“Now more than ever, we need the public’s support. If you can, please help us find a way through the research funding crisis by donating today, so that we can fund more life-saving research.”

In February, the Stroke Association announced the world’s largest study to confirm if Covid-19 increases the risk of stroke.

Together with the new research announced today, the studies will help doctors to prevent and best treat Covid-19 strokes in the people who are most at risk.

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