Back from the brink: Three stroke survivors on the long road to recovery

Back from the brink: Three stroke survivors on the long road to recovery

Three stroke survivors talk to Helen O’Callaghan about the long road to recovery.

A new podcast has been launched to help stroke survivors and their families understand, cope with, and adjust to life after a stroke.

The Strokecast, presented by broadcaster and stroke survivor Gerry Stevens, features interviews with other survivors and the medical professionals who worked with them through their recovery.

Stevens takes us through the lives of survivors before they suffered stroke, the event itself, and their recovery and rehabilitation.

Working as a radio presenter and producer for over 30 years before suffering a stroke in 2017, due to high blood pressure, Stevens spent four months in hospital and underwent 18 months of physiotherapy on his arm and hand.

“I’d been leading an active, busy life as a radio host and managing a band, but one evening I felt unwell. When I turned to my partner she could see one side of my face had completely dropped.

"Fortunately, I was able to receive treatment relatively quickly, but after [the] stroke my life was changed forever,” says the 52 year old.

The Strokecast was created and produced by Unique Media — episodes are available on Soundcloud and on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Here, we talk to three stroke survivors featured in the show.

‘NO CONNECTION’

Shane Kelly had just run upstairs to tell his daughter, Maisie, to hurry up — they were about to do the weekly shopping — when suddenly he blacked out.

Today, the 43-year-old Drogheda-based dad of three can’t recall how, on that April Sunday morning in 2018, he came to, lying on his bed — he has no recollection of getting there.

“I could see my hand lying on my leg but I couldn’t feel it. I felt no connection to it — I thought it was someone else’s. It was a strange feeling.

“I had this incredible deep tiredness. I just wanted to sleep, but something kicked in my head, that sleep wasn’t the right thing to do. I instinctively knew I was having a stroke.”

His left side paralysed and trying to call downstairs to his wife, Susanne, a nurse, Shane didn’t recognise his own voice.

“It was slurred, like I was drunk. I didn’t have the volume to call her, but she realised something was wrong. She put me sitting on the floor and took my blood pressure — it was through the roof.”

Taken by ambulance to hospital, a stroke was confirmed.

“I kept going in and out of consciousness. My speech was coming and going and I was in deep panic. I’ve never experienced fear like it. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but of surviving and being left in some really bad paraplegic state.”

Shane Kelly, 43, had a stroke in 2018. Picture: Moya Nolan
Shane Kelly, 43, had a stroke in 2018. Picture: Moya Nolan

Worry for his children, now aged 12, 10, and eight, was uppermost.

“We were a young active family. The thought of being totally paralysed, and my wife and children having to look after me, was awful. It was like being brought right to the cliff edge.”

In those moments of “fearful clarity”, terrified of losing his speech and not being able to explain to Susanne, he whispered urgently to her: ‘if I wake up and I’m in a really bad state, don’t put me on a machine’. It was, he says, a “horrible conversation”.

Shane doesn’t remember what the doctors did, but they saved his life.

“They got me out of there walking and talking.”

But why he got a stroke was a mystery. “I didn’t fit the profile. I’m no athlete but I’m not a particularly unfit person. I hadn’t been sick, I’d had no symptom. I was healthy and bang — stroke. Even in the moments before, I was totally normal.”

Tests showed a torn internal lining in Shane’s carotid artery in his neck.

“That created a blood clot, which went to my brain.”

Such a tear can be caused by injury but Shane couldn’t recall doing any damage — except he’d recently returned to the gym after an absence.

I was lifting weights over my head. That can put stress on the neck. Millions do this every day and they suffer no [adverse] effects.

Moved quickly to rehab, Shane was due to leave hospital three weeks later for his son’s First Communion.

“I bent over to pick up my towel in the shower and everything went black. Eventually, I started to see, but my right eye didn’t clear.”

Very much wanting to get home for his son’s big day, Shane admits it wasn’t the best idea at that point to leave hospital.

“Foolishly, I went home. I told Suzanne what had happened and that I couldn’t see with my right eye. She called the doctors — an ambulance came for me.”

Doctors diagnosed eye stroke. “Another clot, or fragment of the original one, got into the optic nerve and killed it. I’m 95% blind in my right eye — it’s like I’m wearing an eye patch.”

Shane was put on blood-thinners and anti-coagulants. A musician, he sings with the band Pale Blue Moon (they’ll shortly release an album) and works with the Psychological Society of Ireland.

He considers himself lucky. “There’s 20% risk of death from stroke, so if you’re not dead and you have all your faculties, you’re doing well. There is life after stroke.

"Because of the fear I experienced during it, I now have a complete lack of fear. I’m not concerned about failure. Life’s for living, so grab it — don’t hold yourself back.”

COUNSELLING HELPS

Being diagnosed with stroke aged 32 wasn’t how Gráinne McCann expected to spend her fourth wedding anniversary.

It was March 2016 and the fund accountant from Louth Village hadn’t felt well for three weeks. She had an annoying headache behind her right eye that was getting worse, as well as neck pain.

Describing it to her GP, they wondered if it could be sinus, or eye strain due to long hours working on her PC.

On the morning of March 11, Gráinne had an extremely sore bloodshot eye but wasn’t overly concerned . She went to work, returned home that evening, and collected her children from the childminder.

“I thought if I had an early night I’d feel better next day,” says the mum of three, who then had two children: Adam, four, and Jack, two.

Her husband, Damien, was anxious about her but she reassured him, telling him to go out to a football match. Midway through getting the children to bed — Jack was in his cot, Adam had his storybook ready for her to read — Gráinne suddenly couldn’t see Adam.

Gráinne McCann had a stroke aged 32. Picture: Ciara Wilkinson
Gráinne McCann had a stroke aged 32. Picture: Ciara Wilkinson

“All of a sudden I felt extremely hot, the room was spinning, I knew I was going to vomit. I was terrified but I kept calm — I didn’t want to scare Adam.”

Gráinne was able to phone her neighbour, Elaine, who immediately arrived and helped her to her bedroom.

“I felt glued to where I was sitting — I didn’t know my left leg wasn’t working. It was only when Elaine tried to move me I realised I couldn’t walk.”

With Damien having rushed home and Gráinne’s mum also after arriving, the family called an ambulance.

“The operator on call went through stroke symptoms, asking could I raise both arms. Could I smile? Could I say ‘the early bird catches the worm’ — all of which I could do.”

Four days after being admitted to hospital, and after some clear CT scans, Gráinne, thinking she must have had a bad migraine with vertigo, was expecting to go home when medics told her she’d had a stroke.

I was gobsmacked, very stressed. Stroke’s a massive word. I was very emotional and afraid; if it happened once, would it again?

Doctors explained the stroke had been caused by a spontaneous vertebral artery dissection, a tear in the artery at the back of her neck. “That caused a clot, which caused blockage, which led to stroke,” she says.

On high-dose aspirin for three months post-stroke, Gráinne didn’t feel she was “the same person”. Her energy was down.

However, counselling helped hugely. “It helped me accept this is me now and I should live to the best of my ability as the person I am now.”

Gráinne has since overcome thyroid cancer, as well as removal of her gallbladder. She has also had her third baby — Sadie, now three, was born a year after she’d had the stroke.

“I had a planned C-section — I was deemed high risk for a natural delivery.”

Stroke, she says, doesn’t discriminate — anyone can have one.

“At the time, things didn’t seem great. Four years on, I’m in a very good place, medically and mentally. And I have another baby, a beautiful healthy little girl. Life can get back to being in a good place.”

A STRANGE TURN

Aaron Reilly experienced a stroke aged 23. Picture: Ciara Wilkinson
Aaron Reilly experienced a stroke aged 23. Picture: Ciara Wilkinson

A jiu-jitsu kickboxing champion and MMA fighter, Aaron Reilly had been running the day before. And on the July 2018 morning of the day the then 23-year-old got his stroke, he went to training (he was due to contest a fight a month or so later), did some leg kicks, came home, and took a nap.

After that things took a strange turn.

“I sat down to eat dinner and I felt thirsty. As I stood up to get a glass of water I knocked over my fork, which felt really clumsy. As I walked over to get the water, I felt worse, light-headed, dizzy. I was gradually losing my vision.

"Trying to pour water in the glass, my hand started feeling heavy. Then my vision went — I couldn’t see. I took big deep breaths and that’s what kept me from hitting the floor.”

Trying to alert his mum, his words came out slurred. “At that moment I thought ‘I’m having a stroke’,” says Aaron, who lives in Bettystown, Co Meath.

My mum thought I was messing and I was just panicking, saying ‘help me, quick!’. Then she knew from my tone.

In hospital, he was given medication to reduce clot risk, though doctors wondered if it could be Bell’s palsy, but tests showed he’d suffered stroke.

“It happened because of a hole in my heart, which caused irregular heartbeat. The [doctor] explained that, because I was taking leg kicks as part of MMA, the clot started in the leg. I was doing so much running that the clot didn’t have time to break down so it travelled.

"I’ve had a stent put in to fill the hole in my heart and to lessen the chance of another clot occurring.”

Almost two years on, Aaron’s doing well. “I’m good. I’m happy. I teach kids jiu-jitsu and I still train and compete within jujitsu.

"I don’t do kickboxing or MMA anymore. I think it’s about living live as best you can, doing what you love, and having a good lifestyle.”

Leading cause of death worldwide

  • Stroke occurs when a blood vessel — carrying oxygen/nutrients to the brain — bursts or is blocked by a clot. This interrupts blood supply to part of the brain and can damage/destroy brain cells, which will affect body functions.

  • A stroke’s a medical emergency, therefore recognising symptoms and accessing treatment immediately is often crucial. The term ‘stroke’ reflects how it usually happens without warning, ‘striking’ the person from out of the blue. Stroke effects on the body are immediate.

  • Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide.

  • In Ireland, about 10,000 people have a stroke-related event annually, with 7,000 acute hospital admissions and more than 30,000 people living in the community with disabilities as a result of stroke. (Irish Heart Foundation Stroke Audit 2016).

  • The incidence of stroke is rising by 4% to 5% per year (IHF Stroke Audit 2016)

  • It’s estimated one in four stroke sufferers in Ireland is younger than 65 — the IHF/HSE National Stroke Audit 2015 showed 26% rise in rate of younger stroke since the 2008 audit.

  • Just one in three young stroke survivors (under 65) return to work in the first-year post-stroke. Many lack access to vital recovery services, for example, physiotherapy and counselling.

  • According to an IHF survey of working age stroke survivors, most (95%) reported suffering from anxiety due to their stroke, 75% felt depressed, 77% angry, and 72% felt isolated.

  • For more see: exa.mn/stroke

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