Akron General Health System wants to boost the region’s ability to treat brain problems by opening a special unit for strokes or other life-threatening neurological illnesses and injuries.

The health system’s flagship hospital, Akron General Medical Center, is converting 10 of its 69 critical-care beds into a neurological intensive-care unit.

The neuro ICU is being overseen by Dr. James Gebel Jr., a neurologist who joined Akron General from the Cleveland Clinic this month to serve as medical director of the unit and the medical center’s stroke program.

At the Cleveland Clinic, Gebel was responsible for getting all of the affiliated community hospitals nationally certified as stroke centers. He also worked as an attending physician in stroke service at the main hospital in Cleveland.

Gebel said people recovering from strokes, traumatic brain injuries, brain surgery and other serious neurological problems will benefit from a dedicated intensive-care unit. Patients will be treated by trained nurses, as well as a team of medical, surgical and neurological intensive-care physicians.

“It’s basically a gap that needed to be filled,” Gebel said. “ … One of the huge advantages of a dedicated neuro ICU is you will have a dedicated nursing staff.”

When it opens Feb. 22, the space will be the only dedicated neuro intensive-care unit at any hospital in the Greater Akron area, according to Akron General. Other intensive-care units in the region, however, do treat patients with a variety of critical illnesses, including those caused by neurological problems.

Although Summa Health System doesn't have dedicated space within its critical-care center for patients with neurological problems, it has been running a multidisciplinary neuro ICU program to care for patients since 2008, according to Dr. Susana Bowling, medical director of the Center for Stroke Care at Summa Akron City Hospital. The hospital is listed as a “neurocritical care” site by the Neurocritical Care Society, an international organization made up of medical-care providers specializing in life-threatening neurological illnesses.

The launch of Akron General's neuro ICU is one of the first steps the health system is taking as part of its multimillion-dollar initiative to boost treatment for strokes, brain cancers and neurological disorders.

The health system announced last year that it was joining with a group of local neurosurgeons to establish a Neuroscience Institute at Akron General Medical Center.

This summer, Akron General is acquiring technology known as a Gamma Knife, which uses precise beams of radiation instead of an actual knife to target brain tumors and other cranial disorders.

The health system also is renovating four of its 19 operating rooms and adding so-called smart OR technology that allows surgeons to view images of a patient’s brain taken in the operating room.

In addition, Akron General recently hired a neurosurgeon from Michigan who specializes in providing minimally invasive procedures to treat strokes and other brain disorders.

The doctor will be able to place coils in the brain to treat aneurysms without opening the skull — a procedure that Akron General typically sends patients to Cleveland hospitals to undergo, said Dr. Georges Z. Markarian, a neurosurgeon and chairman of Akron General's Neuroscience Institute. The health system is investing more than $3 million in the equipment needed to provide this and other minimally invasive treatments.

Markarian estimates about 600 Summit County residents leave the county each year for neurological care.

Fast treatment of strokes and head trauma close to home is critical, he said, because “time is brain.”

“We feel this is a service the community needs,” he said.

Markarian noted that Akron General already is designated a Level 1 trauma center, meaning it can care for the most complex trauma cases. “We want to be the equivalent of a Level 1 neuro center,” he said.

The medical center is acquiring special monitors to measure pressure in the brain and other signs of change in neurological function for patients in the new neuro ICU, as well as a unit that can cool patients’ brains to promote recovery, Gebel said.

The neuro ICU also will have a $500,000 portable CT scanner that can provide images of patients’ brains without moving them to the radiology department.

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or chpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.