I was screaming to get the paramedics or get me to hospital, but nothing was coming out
Mel is a paramedic and had just returned home from a sporting event and holiday in Europe when she started to feel unwell. She knew she was having a brain bleed, but nobody took her seriously. Here’s Mel’s story...
I had just returned home to Brisbane, Australia from a sporting event and holiday in France and Italy when I started to feel unwell. It was a general unwellness. Then I started to get a ringing in my ears and profound fatigue. After the holiday I went straight back to shift work as a paramedic. It wouldn’t be unusual to be tired as our shifts are 12 plus hours long, but I knew that this was different.
I went to the doctor saying that I thought perhaps I had an ear infection because the noise in my ears was getting worse, but after a check she said it was probably just from the plane trip. I also missed a shift at work because I didn’t wake up. I had never missed a shift before for not waking up, so this was highly unusual. I was training for a triathlon at the time so when I would comment about how I felt unusually unwell, people would comment and say I should slow down.
Increasingly I became nauseated and very thirsty and craved an incredible amount of salt.
I remember that I started to drop my drinks at work, would end up going the wrong way to the hospital with a patient on board and was so tired, I could hardly finish a shift. I went back to the GP and said that I really thought something was wrong. The GP did some blood tests and said that I had low sodium. ‘Thank goodness it’s not a brain bleed’ I thought and even laughed about it.
I went to work on Saturday 28 September 2019 and for some reason said to my work partner as we were preparing to start the shift, “I think I’m having a brain bleed”. He told me how ridiculous I was and despite feeling extremely unwell and tired, we continued with the shift. I was on a night shift again the next evening, and very seriously said “I really think I’m having a brain haemorrhage” but my partner reassured me that I was super fit and that I was just tired and stressed from my trip and training. However, I could not complete this shift as I fell asleep and ended up going home at midnight.
I woke abruptly Monday 30th September, and this is when my acute symptoms started. I didn’t have a headache, but could not think, could not find words and could not name things. The aphasia went but then I started seeing flashes in my left periphery. I would later find out this was seizure activity.
I became very agitated and anxious and I knew intrinsically I needed help otherwise I would die. I was so scared that no one would believe me.
I went to my local GP and stated that I was going to die but was just put into the waiting room. By the time I went in to see my GP, I had full aphasia. Inside my head I knew I was trying to speak, and I knew my GP had no idea what was going on. I was screaming at her to get the paramedics or get me too hospital but of course nothing was coming out. She did ring the paramedics who I knew as they worked in my area. I remember one paramedic just staring at me like she was stressed. It was very strange because I was in such a state of fear and agitation and then everything started to go quiet and a beautiful feeling of serenity came over me. I knew that perhaps this was it. I had spoken to many people that had died and been revived but no one ever told me of the peace before death but somehow, I felt happy, like I was smiling and then everything faded. This is a very clear memory for me. I had just have gone unconscious at that point. The next thing I knew was three days later when I was woken from a coma. I was very frightened. I could hardly see and could feel something pushing in my chest and it was at that point I knew I was intubated and feeling the machine breathe for me. I became agitated and was put back into a coma. I remember waking again with the same feeling and knew I needed to calm myself this time. My work partner was holding my hand and crying. I felt very sad because I knew what had happened. The doctors confirmed to me that I had had a brain haemorrhage. I was put back to sleep. I don’t know how many days this was for. The next thing I remember is being tested for function and asked to answer simple questions. I don’t have much more memory apart from being moved to neurosurgery and being on lots of pain meds for severe headaches.
I was very lucky and started on the first outpatient trial at the hospitals for very early stroke rehabilitation, three weeks after the haemorrhage. It would have been a little earlier, but I had to go back into hospital after a setback with my salt levels. I received OT physio, speech therapy and social work appointments over a six-month period. I was given jigsaws, word-finding games, and reading exercises to do at home. I feel my progress slowed after a few months rehab.
I tested quite high and reached all the brain injury rehab goals which are set for the average person, but I feel with more work I could have far exceeded those goals. There should be different testing based on people’s different levels of education, work history, etc. I understand this would be hard to manage and yes, I could have continued with private therapy however, unfortunately, that costs a lot of money and when you are out of work, it’s hard to put that into action.
I am now nearly 11 months in and still have bad days. It’s been a huge year and I really don’t remember a lot of it, and this is hard to grasp. I’m slightly deaf in one ear now, and I had to relearn things like how to use the shower, how to make a coffee, and basically go from an infant to a year two old child. I get a little depressed here and there and still get confused easily, especially when I am tired. I'm starting to make decisions and I speak as though mostly normal but still find writing and reading difficult. I have terrible mood swings but slowly with determination this is getting better. The fatigue is overwhelming but I’m exercising and started rowing in sculls and quad races. I also learnt to ride a bike again and can now ride 60 km with a small break and am learning to sail. I hope to be able to participate in fundraising events as I get stronger.
It’s tough to survive this kind of trauma. I think determination and positivity is key and so is support. Do what you can to access help - be it through family, friends, rehab - even knowing that my old job supported me helped. I don’t think I’ll ever get back to being a paramedic. Although I was helping so many people as a paramedic, I’ve seen too much death, injury and sickness and now been so close to my own mortality.
I think now it is time to try and help those with invisible disabilities like the effects that stroke, ABI and TBI bring, especially in young stroke survivors.
Life has changed dramatically but intrinsically I am the same person just slightly altered and now I have to be happy with any progress I make. It’s difficult because it is a silent disability and unless you’ve experienced it no one can truly understand. I was given a second chance and I’m not going to waste it.