Houston's groundbreaking mobile stroke unit is saving lives, study shows

Briana Conner Image
Thursday, September 9, 2021
Houston's mobile stroke unit is 'emergency department on wheels'
It looks like an ambulance on the outside, but the unit aims to treat patients fast in serious situations where every second counts.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A six-year study across six different cities, including Houston, could change the way stroke patients receive care all across the country.

A team led by researchers at UTHealth and Memorial Hermann found a way to treat people faster in serious situations where every second counts.

It may look like an ambulance from the outside, but it's actually much more. A mobile stroke unit, or MSU, has been rolling around Houston since 2014. Dr. James Grotta and his team raised the funds to create the first one in the country.

"Essentially, this mobile stroke unit is just an emergency department on wheels. Everything we used to do in the emergency room, we now do on board this mobile stroke unit at the patient's home, or wherever it is the stroke occurs," Grotta said.

Stuart Hepler is an active 30-year-old who suffered a stroke while he was at work in late July. The MSU arrived and doctors began treatment in under an hour.

"You know, it kept getting worse and pretty quick," said Hepler. "It was able to come to me and do a scan in my office parking lot and administer the clot-busting medicine that saved my life, certainly. It definitely saved my quality of life."

"Getting that patient treated in the first hour, we saw 70% of the people would be paralyzed or unable to talk, and 70% returned back to normal if they are treated within less than an hour. That's impossible if you have to wait until the emergency room to get treated," Grotta said.

The study on the MSU published Wednesday and also showed patients treated on board had less disability after 90 days. Hepler said that time translates into more treasured moments with his wife and their 4-month-old.

"I'm doing a lot of things. I went for a run the other day, and I've been going for walks with my son in his stroller," Hepler said.

Looking ahead, Grotta said every city needs an MSU. His team is using the results of their study, and stories like Hepler's now, to convince Medicare and other insurers that they save money and lives.

Donations from Frazer LTD., The Fondren Foundation, HEB, and Mattress Mack helped pay for UT Health's mobile stroke unit.