Dr. Desmond Carson understands the value of humor in explaining complex medical procedures. So there were a lot of smiling faces in the crowd last week at Doctors Medical Center when he likened the blood flow in an aging body to the plumbing system in an old house.

"When you have a backup in the pipes, what do you do?" he asked. "You try some liquid Drano. If that doesn't work, you call a plumber, and he puts a snake down the pipe. That's the same thing we do."

For emergency room physicians such as Carson, Drano is a clot-busting medicine called TPA (tissue plasmogen activator) and the snake is a vein-clearing process known as angioplasty. One or both come into play when a heart attack or stroke victim is rushed in for treatment.

The homespun educational session was part of a Health Fair for Seniors and Veterans, at which more than 120 attendees experienced an oxymoron: a pleasurable visit to the hospital. Participants were given free flu shots and screenings for blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and bone density.

The services were donated by a variety of health care organizations in a program supported by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Contra Costa County Supervisors John Gioia and Federal Glover. The reason for the classroom session, Gioia said, was "to get good information out so people don't have to come to the hospital."


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Carson talked about how to prevent and recognize strokes, which result from a sudden loss of blood flow to the brain. He said factors enhancing risk include high blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use and cholesterol.

His advice about smoking was simple: Don't do it. As for the others, he said, "Typically, if you keep your weight down, those will come down, too."

If you'd rather not find yourself looking up at him from a bed one day, he said, start exercising -- daily 30-minute walks -- and eating right. If food comes from a tree or a plant, it's likely good for you. If it comes from a can or a box, it's probably not.

He said the key to recognizing a stroke is remembering four words whose first letter spells out "FAST." If someone's Face is abnormally twisted, his Arm is improperly functioning or his Speech is impaired, then it is Time to call 911.

Carson's colleague Dr. Laurel Hodgson addressed the symptoms of heart attack: chest discomfort, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea and lightheadedness. She said the worst mistake a person can make is not taking such signs seriously.

She cited two victims who suffered heart attacks of similar magnitude. One, who immediately called 911 and was treated within 67 minutes, recovered fully. Another, who waited 3½ hours before seeking help, wound up permanently disabled.

"If you have any symptom of stroke or heart attack, call 911," Hodgson said. "Don't debate it, don't think about, don't put it off."

Doctors Medical Center has gone through difficult times since a 2006 bankruptcy filing, but it keeps making a difference. Thanks to Carson, it did so with a humor, as when he stressed the importance of weight control.

"People always talk about that 'little old man,'" he said. "You never hear anybody talk about that 'big old man.' Little people have less risk of heart disease."

And smart people listen to what doctors say.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.