By Bernie Tafoya

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Chicago area is moving to the cutting edge in the fight against the number one cause of disability in the United States: stroke.

Rush University Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Demetrius Lopes said time is key in diagnosing and beginning treatment on stroke victims. That’s why he is excited about the prospects for Rush’s new Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit, which is a specialized ambulance which begins operating in the western suburbs in the coming months.

“It’s definitely the next frontier when it comes down to the treatment for a stroke, because it allows us to catch the patients in a moment that we just never had the opportunity before,” Lopes said.

Lopes said, using the current system, the average time from the onset of a stroke to being treated with clot-busting drugs is about 60 minutes.

“If you go into units like this, it has been shown to go down to 19 minutes,” he said.

The Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit will be based in Oak Park, and serve 18 communities starting early next year, Lopes said.

The unit looks like a standard ambulance, but it has a CT scan machine and anti-stroke medications inside. That allows a stroke diagnosis on-the-scene and treatment to begin right away.

A nurse, a paramedic, and a driver travel with the mobile unit to a stroke victim’s home or wherever else she or he is. A doctor who specializes in strokes is based in the hospital, and is in contact with the mobile team, making decisions on treatment.

“You have millions of brain cells dying every minute (when a stroke hits), and if you’re able to decrease the amount of time from the onset of the stroke to treatment, you can save your brain and be able to actually recover and return to a normal life more often,” Lopes said.

There are only eight other Mobile Stroke Treatment Units in operation around the world. Lopes said its use is the difference between walking out of a hospital or rolling out in a wheelchair.

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