If you've ever known anyone who has suffered a serious stroke, you understand how devastating a "brain attack" can be.

If you've ever known anyone who has suffered a serious stroke, you understand how devastating a "brain attack" can be.

But research shows that most Americans can name only one or two of the several major warning signs of stroke. That knowledge deficit is probably the single greatest barrier to prompt treatment — and anyone suffering a stroke must get to a hospital quickly because, quite literally, time is brain.

Once in a hospital, around 80 different things need to be done to a stoke patient, and that requires speed and enormous coordination. There's no doubt, though, that people treated rapidly by a trained stroke team have by far the best chance of success. Usually they can go home after a brief hospitalization, instead of facing an expensive extended stay in a nursing home.

Rogue Valley Medical Center has been certified as a primary stroke center since 2003 and Providence Medford Medical Center has been certified since 2009. Other hospitals in the region are certain to follow.

Stroke centers have to demonstrate, among other things, that they have a trained stroke team available around the clock to evaluate a patient within 15 minutes of arrival. Also, they must be able to perform and interpret either a head CT scan or a brain MRI scan within 45 minutes, have a fully functioning medical laboratory and pharmacy open 24/7, and be able to provide stroke care well beyond the emergency department.

But for a stroke team to be most effective, people have to know when a stroke is happening and act quickly.

Key warning signs include sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; and sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

Any of these symptoms should prompt an instant call to 9-1-1.

According to the American Stroke Association (part of the American Heart Association), stroke is the No. 3 killer of Americans, trailing only heart disease and cancer. Nearly 800,000 people have a new or recurrent stroke each year and almost 150,000 die. As important, stroke is the No. 1 cause of disability, robbing many people of the most productive years of their lives.

Medical treatments for stroke are both complex and rapidly evolving. New therapies such as clot-busting drugs work wonders, but they have to be administered within three to four hours for maximum effect.

For years, Southern Oregon has had the distinction of being one of the best places in Oregon to survive a heart attack. Now it's time to do the same thing for those who suffer strokes. May is Stroke Awareness Month. This is a good time to talk about being stroke smart.

Oscar Sanchez, M.D., is a neurologist with Medford Medical Clinic who sees stroke patients at Rogue Valley Medical Center and Providence Medford Medical Center.