November 21st, 2008
10:27 AM ET

What happened to Mukasey?

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

Last night, Attorney General Michael Mukasey collapsed while giving a speech. CNN had a camera rolling during the event, giving us an unusual look at what happened. I got a call in the middle of the night to come take a look. (Watch Video)  Even doctors, while we read about diseases and see patients after they end up in the ER, we hardly ever witness things like this. I decided to blog about it this morning, hoping we might all learn something from seeing what happened to Mukasey.

During his speech, he seemed to have word-finding difficulties. He started to say a word, paused and repeated it. He then began to slur his words, and had a slight drooping of the right side of his face. After that, he slumped forward and passed out, requiring assistance to the ground. All of these events serve as clues as to what may have caused the problem in the first place.

Word-finding difficulties are sometimes an indication there is a problem with the speech center of the brain, typically located on the left side of the brain. It could be because of inadequate blood flow to the brain or sometimes bleeding within the brain itself, as was the case in late 2006 with Sen. Tim Johnson. (Read more) The fact that the right side of his body began to droop and he slurred words was also important signs. After all, the right side of the body is controlled by the left brain. Another clue:  He seemed to pass out, probably because of overall decreased blood flow to the brain. And, finally, he reportedly is now doing well able to talk and in good spirits. Clearly, whatever caused this seems to be temporary.  It could have been a fainting spell.

In the emergency room, doctors probably checked his blood pressure to see whether he was dehydrated, drew his blood to look for a blood sugar that was too low or other abnormalities. They may have obtained a CAT scan of his brain and taken a look at his carotid arteries, the vessels that lead to his brain, to see if there is any blockage, and his heart to see if any clots were present that may have traveled from his heart to his brain.

One of the questions his doctor will most likely want to answer: Was this a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke? That is a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain. The person may experience a sudden weakness or numbness of the arms, legs and/or face, difficulty with speech and loss of balance.

If you have ever experienced those things, you should definitely tell your doctor about it – even if the symptoms lasted just a few minutes. That’s because about a third of people who have a TIA go on to have a full stroke sometime in the future.

Here’s the good news: Preventing that stroke may be as simple as starting an aspirin a day or another blood thinner. That may be all that is needed for the attorney general as well. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.