Mater specialists fill hole in stroke sufferer’s heart

A new specialist stroke team at Mater is blocking life-threatening blood clots in their tracks.  

Around one in four people are born with a hole in the heart – a condition that is harmless for many, but potentially deadly for those with a high risk of stroke. 

Now a new Heart-Brain Unit at Mater Hospital Brisbane is bringing top neurologists and cardiologists together to identify and treat at-risk patients and dramatically reduce their chances of suffering future strokes. 

Kerry Thomas, 53, was one of first twenty patients to have benefitted from the program in its first year. 

The Wellington Point resident endured a long and complex health journey before presenting at Mater.  

“I suffered my first major stroke in 2017 when I was on dialysis and being prepped for a kidney transplant,” Mrs Thomas said.  

“I eventually had my kidney transplant, but then suffered a seizure – which may’ve developed into a mini stroke - during a vacation on the Sunshine Coast in 2021, and then two mini ones again in August last year. 

“That’s when I first came to the Mater and they put me under an MRI where they discovered I’d had two mini strokes right below the cerebral gland at the back of my head.  

“They determined that they needed to plug the hole in my heart – or, as they called it, ‘the tunnel in the heart’.” 

A hole in the heart occurs when the connection between the heart’s right atria and left atria doesn’t close naturally in the first years of life.   

It means that blood clots can travel between the gap, potentially reaching the brain and causing a stroke.   

Dr Nick Aroney, a cardiologist at Mater Private Hospital Brisbane, said the 20-25% of adults who have a PFO generally don’t realise.  

“For the vast majority of people, a PFO is harmless,” Dr Aroney said.  

“There isn’t a screening test for it, however it should be considered as a cause for stroke in patients aged up 60.” 

Mrs Thomas had a closure device inserted by Dr Aroney earlier this year.  

Dr Aroney said a PFO closure is a short, low-risk procedure with excellent outcomes.  

“A keyhole incision is made in the groin allowing for a small catheter to be maneuvered up the vein in the leg, across the hole in the heart where a plug can be deployed,” Dr Aroney said.  

“The plug is essentially a small mesh device with umbrella-like structures on either end that are released once it is in place to hold it in position. 

“Trials have demonstrated a 77 per cent relative risk reduction of stroke in patients who have PFO closures, which can go a long way towards enhancing quality of life.” 

Dr Andrew Swayne, neurologist at Mater’s Centre for Neurosciences, said the multidisciplinary capabilities of Mater’s Heart-Brain group ensure exceptional shared care for patients such as Mrs Thomas.  

“The patient gets the benefits of Mater’s neurology expertise and cardiology expertise to ensure the best possible outcomes,” Dr Swayne said.  

“The patient would initially present to Mater’s dedicated Stroke Unit, where up to 200 people are seen a year.  

“If a patient younger than 60 years of age has a stroke and a PFO is identified the Heart-Brain group comes into play. 

“The patient’s case would then go to a peer-review group, where personalised options and solutions are discussed in great detail before determining if surgery – a PFO closure in Kerry’s case – is the best path forward.” 

Dr Swayne said Mater’s Heart-Brain cohort is proud to be part of the care team who have done everything possible to reduce her risk of stroke moving forward.  

“She was always a fountain of positivity, despite the health challenges she’s faced in her life; the attitude she brings is quite inspirational,” Dr Swayne said.  

“She’s been progressing really well, she has a long-term strategy, her medication, and she has been discharged from the Stroke Unit here at Mater.” 

Six months on, the 53-year-old says she’s recovering well.   

“I’m pretty good. Really, it’s just my speech, which was from the first stroke.  

“I sometime get my words muddled, so the other day I went to say to my husband, ‘Darren, you’ve got a hot bod, but it came out as ‘Darren, you’re a hot dog’.  

“I laugh about it – you’ve got to.”  

Ms Thomas’ rehabilitation has gone so well, she has now been discharged from the purpose-designed, dedicated Stroke Unit at Mater Neurosciences.   

“My advice to other stroke sufferers is to ask as many questions as you can before you leave the hospital; you want to know what you can do, how long you have to stay put, when you can exercise, anything like that,” Ms Thomas said.   

“And don’t forget to live your life! Darren and I just went on a holiday to Mansfield in Victoria and took a helicopter ride up to Craig’s Hut, from The Man from Snowy River, which I’ve always wanted to do.   

“You can’t sit there and just wait to have another stroke for it to kill you – you have to get up and live.”  

Pictured: Dr Andrew Swayne, Darren Thomas, Kerry Thomas and Dr Nick Aroney.

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