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Stroke survivors still have everything to offer!

“I think this is going to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” I remember whispering to a friend. It had been two weeks since my stroke. I was still in hospital, waiting for a transfer to a rehab facility, where I’d begin the long process of managing my new reality.

On Saturday, May 26, 2012, I had gone to bed with a migraine. When I woke up the next day, I couldn’t walk. Even as they wheeled me into the emergency room, I kept insisting I just had a bad headache. I was only 45, healthy and fit. I wasn’t supposed to have a stroke. Then they showed me the results of my MRI scan. There was a big splodge on the right hand side of my brain. “That’s why you can’t walk.” The therapists and doctors were using terms like ischaemic, cerebrovascular attack, hemiplegia, vasospasm, aphasia, cognitive dysfunction. I had no idea what they were talking about.  It wasn’t until much later that I really understood what they meant.

I had suffered an ischaemic stroke or CVA, essentially a blockage in one of the blood vessels in the brain. The neurologist thought I might have suffered a vasospasm as a result of my migraine, which cut off the blood supply. I was split down the middle. I could move the right part of my body, but the left was dead. The wiring from my brain to my left had been damaged and, in rehab, I would have to learn how to rewire my brain.

Hospital was no fun. For a while I had tubes coming out of almost every orifice: there was a catheter and a feeding tube, and every so often a nurse would stick a thermometer in my ear. But compared to rehab, hospital was a breeze. 

 I’ve heard doctors refer to the rehab facility as a “bootcamp” and the therapists were called “terrorists. The first words out of the rehab doctor’s mouth was: “There are no patients here. Every day you get up, get dressed and go to the gym.” I was assigned an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist, a psychotherapist and a speech therapist. There was an "ist" for every part of me. That would be my life for six weeks.

At some point, I thought: “If I’m ever going to get better, I’m going to have to work hard and do what they say.” I was highly motivated to get better: As a single, independent career woman, who owned her own home, I did not want to have to move back home with my parents. I had to get strong enough to return to work. I was a journalist at a daily newspaper, a stressful job, but one to which I gave my all. What would I be, without my work? I had amazing colleagues who arranged for me to do some light editing from the rehab facility so at least I felt I was still contributing.

I was lucky. The paper kept my job open for me for months. I've heard of employers offering no support whatsoever to employees who have suffered a stroke. I hope my story shows that you can't write off stroke survivors. 

We still have everything to offer. The connection to my old life helped me to set goals, however small; like managing to transfer to and from my wheelchair; going to the loo by myself for the first time; dressing myself; walking 10 metres in under 3 minutes. My therapists kept reminding me stroke recovery is a process. it doesn't happen overnight. There are lots of steps between A and Z. When I was discharged, I was still very wobbly on  my legs, like a newborn  calf. I still used the wheelchair as well as a quadpod. 

My parents were there to look after me. My dad handled the driving and the heavy lifting, like the wheelchair; sometimes me and the wheelchair. My mom assumed the role of caregiver again. I seemed to be slipping back to my childhood. I knew I couldn't live like this for a long. I gave us a deadline: I would return to work part-time on September 1; learn to drive again by October; and they would leave in November.

My days were full: rushing from one therapy session to another.

I was still seeing a psychologist, who helped me to put the stroke in perspective. Her help was invaluable. Now four years later, I still see her, as well as an occupational therapist and a biokineticist. I have been incredibly lucky in a number of respects: I had the support of my friends, family and my colleagues; I had a job to go back to; I could afford a medical aid that would cover most of my expenses; and I had the will to get better.

Yes, it has been the most difficult time of my life, but also the most rewarding. I have learnt that I'm stronger than I thought and that I can draw on that strength in other areas of my life. I've met wonderful brave people, fellow "strokers" like myself, whose challenges exceed my own. I've gone paragliding and ziplining; I've travelled overseas three times; I've written a book; I've started jogging (very slowly) and swimming (also slowly) again. Each day brings new possibilities; and stroke or not, I try to be open to them.

Contact me on rolyleary@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at @RobLeary