It was about 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Amanda Tanner and her husband were suddenly jolted out of sleep by their dog.
Axel, a 1-year-old border collie the family had rescued, jumped on their bed and seemed adamant they get up. When the groggy couple was slow to respond, the dog was persistent in trying to get their attention.
“He was pawing me more than normal to get me to move,” Tanner, 44, who lives in Spring, Texas, tells TODAY.com.
Her husband finally went downstairs and opened the sliding door to let the dog outside, but Axel didn’t follow. Instead, the dog stopped in front of the closed bedroom door of the couple’s 17-year-old son, Gabriel, and wouldn’t move.
His parents didn’t know it yet, but inside, their healthy, athletic high school senior was having a stroke.
When Gabriel’s dad checked on the teen, he quickly realized something was wrong. The boy was slurring his speech and couldn’t feel his right side. The family went from taking senior pictures just hours before to rushing their son to the emergency room the next morning.
By waking the parents up and leading them to the boy, the dog made a “massive” difference in Gabriel’s outcome, says Dr. Sabih Effendi, a neurosurgeon and stroke medical director at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, who treated the teen.
“It’s very amazing that their dog alerted and started this whole process of getting everyone awake and going downstairs,” Effendi tells TODAY.com.
“When somebody’s acutely having a stroke, the neurons are dying. … If he was not found and another three or four hours went by, there would have been more and more and more brain injury.”
What caused the stroke?
Gabriel says he didn’t have any health problems before his stroke on Aug. 26. He had a headache the night before, but felt better, played video games and went to sleep. The stroke happened sometime overnight.
When he saw his dad early the next morning, Gabriel remembers not being able to lift up his right arm or grip onto his dad’s hands. He wasn’t aware he was slurring his words.
“There was no pain,” the teen says, but recalls his vision got “really fuzzy” and “zoomed in.”
By the time Effendi saw him, Gabriel had trouble understanding and speaking language. An angiogram revealed he was suffering a left sided stroke that led to weakness on the right side of his body.
“It was scary. I remember Mom (was) very distraught and our team, too, so worried about him,” Effendi recalls. At one point, the doctor thought Gabriel might need 24/7 care even if he recovered.
“He’s senior year. He’s (in) varsity soccer. And I’m like, what just happened? A whole life of planning and it all looks different now,” Tanner says.
The cause of the stroke was a dissection, or tear, of an artery that delivers blood to the brain. Arteries have thick walls made up of many layers, Effendi explains. Sometimes, a layer can break off — due to trauma like a car accident or just spontaneously — and reduce the flow of blood to the brain or completely block it.
That’s what happened in Gabriel’s case. His arterial dissection was spontaneous, one of the leading causes of stroke in people under 30, Effendi says.
The teen was put on blood thinners, a critical treatment because it helps restore blood flow, the doctor notes. Patients also receive intravenous fluids to increase their blood volume to boost blood flow to the brain. The artery tear then often heals on its own.
Grateful for Axel, the dog
Given that the stroke happened overnight when Gabriel was alone and the rest of the household was asleep, the dog played a crucial role in alerting the family, allowing the boy to be treated quickly, both his doctor and family say.
“We wouldn’t have thought to go into Gabriel’s room and wake him up. He’s a teenager. It was a Saturday morning. We went to bed late. We wouldn’t think to go in there until maybe noon,” Tanner says.
“The longer that went by without being on a blood thinner, his stroke would have been worse and worse, to the point where he may have been paralyzed on his right side for the rest of his life or unable to speak at all,” Effendi adds. “Being found earlier because of the dog … that significantly improved his outcome.”
Less than two months after his stroke, Gabriel has made “amazing” progress, Effendi says. He’s taking classes from a homebound teacher and receiving physical, occupational and speech therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, Texas.
“I feel like as I was before,” he says.
The family hopes he can be back in school with his friends soon, enjoying senior year and playing soccer again.
As for Axel, the dog, Tanner plans to make a little medal of honor for him to go on his collar.
“He’s now tasked with following Gabriel everywhere,” she says.
“He’s now sleeping with Gabriel more, and Gabriel’s doors are open so he can go in and out. He’s always been very sensitive to everything and everybody’s emotions at home.”