Trading snow for palm trees and fighting stroke at this U-M office


A small group of University of Michigan staff and faculty see palm trees through their office windows. They steer clear of armadillos on Texas back roads to pursue their research mission.

Eleven staff members currently work in the U-M field office in the heart of Corpus Christi, Texas, which sits on an inlet bay that feeds the Gulf of Mexico. They support the Brain Attack Surveillance in Corpus Christi project. BASIC researchers work with patients and hospitals to learn why Mexican Americans have a greater burden of stroke than non-Hispanic whites.

 “What we’re learning here through community-based surveillance is really critical to understanding the incidence of stroke in the Mexican-American population. Since Hispanics in the U.S. are the largest minority population and rapidly growing and aging, this is not only important for this area but for the rest of the country as well,” says Nelda Garcia, BASIC field office director.

Blue fleece jackets featuring the Block M logo — a gift from the Department of Neurology — helped keep the Corpus Christi staff warm during what was a chilly winter by Texas standards. (Photo by Dr. Lewis Morgenstern)

More than 9,000 stroke patients have participated in the study that’s become a global model. Since 2000, every stroke occurring in those age 45 and older living in Nueces County, Texas, has been counted and analyzed for the project. The National Institutes of Health has continuously funded the work in Corpus Christi since 1999. The NIH recently began funding a fourth, five-year funding cycle on April 1; a remarkable funding achievement for this project in the years of lean NIH budgets.

While the gap remains for higher stroke incidence among Mexican Americans, there’s evidence of a trend for declining stroke rates among Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic Whites.

“Together we have made important clinical observations about stroke useful for clinicians, researchers and public health planners,” says Dr. Lewis Morgenstern, director of the Stroke Program at U-M, principal investigator for BASIC, and professor of neurology and epidemiology.

Morgenstern has worked in Corpus Christi since 1995 and created BASIC. The other principal investigator is Lynda Lisabeth, interim chair and associate professor of epidemiology, School of Public Health, and associate professor of neurology. Both are Ann Arbor-based.

“Dr. Morgenstern comes to Corpus Christi three or four times a year. He does training, and goes out with research abstractors to the hospitals to make sure we’re doing the project the way he’s envisioned it,” Garcia says.

Touring a field office

Corpus Christi and Ann Arbor are 1,262 miles apart as measured in a straight line, or 1,504 miles by car — a 25-hour drive. Yet, staff and researchers in Texas, just like their Ann Arbor counterparts, carry maize-colored plastic identification cards with eight-digit employee ID numbers. Some who work for the BASIC project are Corpus Christi-area natives, including Garcia.

“Dr. Morgenstern gave us a present many years ago. It was a University of Michigan clock. You can set it so every hour it would play the Michigan fight song. We make sure that setting is on when he comes down, so we can show our maize and blue support,” Garcia says. Sports fans on staff keep up with U-M’s progress in football and basketball. “If Michigan’s playing on TV we’re rooting for them.

 “We’re really proud to work here. We’re learning more about stroke in the Mexican-American population, which makes Corpus Christi absolutely ideal for this study. We get to live here and work for a great university, the University of Michigan.”

U-M tropical style

Research Assistants Elizabeth Ramirez, left, and Misty Ujhely are outside one of the hospitals in Corpus Christi where BASIC project stroke research is carried out. (Photo by Jill Behnke)

On a recent afternoon in early April, the temperature in Ann Arbor was 37. At the same time, staff in Corpus Christi were experiencing 81 degrees, and a lot of humidity. The vegetation in recent weeks has turned green, and hibiscus and other sub-tropical flowers are blooming in colors of light and dark pinks, and oranges. The BASIC stroke study field office is in the heart of the city, which the 2012 census reports has a population of 312,195.

“There are a lot of seagulls, and palm trees, tall ones and shorter ones. That’s a common thing to see around here,” Garcia says. Way out on the bay, oil drilling platforms can be spotted on a clear day. “There’s a couple of really big ones out there,” she says. The area is also known for the Naval Air Station, where military pilots are trained. “The city is diverse in the sense there’s not just one main industry, but several that are prevalent, Garcia says.

As part of their jobs, researchers visit five local hospitals to review medical records of stroke patients. They abstract data from those charts, and interview patients and their families. The field office serves as a main hub. “We do our weekly staff meetings here, plus our training and data backup,” Garcia says.

Corpus Christi is ranked the No. 5 top port in the country in tonnage shipped. Shipping operations and a large marina take up much of the shoreline.

“There are sailboat races on the bay, plus the city built a small man-made beach close to the downtown area,” Garcia says. The harbor is also home to the retired carrier USS Lexington, the Texas State Aquarium, and the Harbor Bridge. A popular beach area, Padre Island, is a 25-minute drive from town.

Now that continued funding for the stroke project has been approved, the number of staff is expected to grow from 11 to 15.

“We’re going to be doing outcome interviews now with our stroke patients — at three, six and 12 months, and assess the patients at that point. Another key aspect of our research is studying the relationship between sleep apnea and stroke,” Garcia says.

Besides working in the city hospitals, stroke researchers also drive farm roads to coastal bend towns within the county, to interview patients. On the trips, it may be possible to spot native wildlife such as armadillos and javelinas — members of the peccary family that look like a cross between a pig and a hog.

Back in the office, and generally in Corpus Christi, folks run air conditioning 10 months out of the year. Typically, winter temperatures range from highs in the 60s to lows in the 40s — but not this year. “Our winter was relatively cold for us. Maybe four times we got to 30 degrees, the wind chill was in the low 20s those days,” Garcia says.

While hurricanes have been known to occur, devastating storms, including Katrina, tend to happen northeast of Corpus Christi.

“We’ve just kind of been lucky,” Garcia says.

— Shantell M. Kirkendoll of UMHS Public Relations contributed to this story.

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