SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Quick action by a pilot during a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt likely saved a passenger who was suffering a stroke when the plane made an emergency landing in Minneapolis last week.

Experts say immediate action after a stroke hits is the key to minimizing potentially devastating effects.

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Luckly on the flight in question, a fellow passenger and an airline pilot knew what to do when Rome native Rosanna Rizzi began experiencing the telltale symptoms of a stroke.

The 83-year-old Rizzi, a world traveler and yoga teacher, had spent the Christmas holiday in Northern California visiting her daughter and grandson. It was on her flight home last week that the happy holiday took a dark turn.

During the flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, she started feeling poorly, according to CBS Minnesota.

“I felt strange,” Rizzi said. “I felt like I was fainting and I couldn’t speak.”

After speaking with a doctor on board the flight about Rizzi’s condition, the pilot cut the overseas flight short, redirecting to make an emergency landing in nearby Minneapolis so Rizzi could get to a hospital as soon as possible.

“All of a sudden the captain announced, ‘We’re going to land in Minneapolis,’ and there was surprise,” Rizzi said.

Rizzi was rushed to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis after the plane landed. There, she was immediately given a clot-dissolving medicine.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and is a major cause of adult disability, according to the CDC. About 800,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year. One American dies from a stroke every 4 minutes, on average.

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About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic, caused by a blood clot blocking an artery leading to the brain. Quick treatment can help reduce the long-term effects of a stroke and save lives, according experts.

The only FDA approved treatment for ischemic stroke is a drug called tPA or tissue plasminogen activator. It works by dissolving the clot and improving blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood.

But tPA needs to be given to stroke sufferers within a certain window of time. If administered within several hours, the drug can improve a person’s chances of recovering.

Fairview neurologist Dr. Kristen Kelly-Williams says the pilot made the right decision.

“He saved her from potentially being in a wheelchair to now up walking around being her normal self,” Kelly-Williams said.

“I’m very grateful,” Rizzi said while recovering in the hospital.

High blood pressure, smoking cigarettes, atrial fibrillation and low physical activity can all increase a person’s risk for stroke, according to the American Stroke Association. About 80 percent of all strokes are preventable, through lifestyle factors and medications.

To help identify the warning signs of a stroke, remember the acronym FAST, the association recommends:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911
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Rizzi, who used to be a flight attendant and whose husband was a pilot, plans to stay in Minneapolis for a couple more weeks for rehabilitation before finally heading home to Rome. Once she arrives back in Italy, she says she hopes to be able to thank the pilot who helped save her life.