8th June 2020, I woke up and something didn't feel right. I couldn't seem to get comfortable on my right side. In fact, that whole side felt weird.
A little bit about Andy
Let me attempt to set the scene. It’s been three months since Ireland officially became hostage to COVID-19 and like most people bored and stuck at home, my boyfriend and I decided a little spring clean, and a touch of decorating would be a good way to pass a warm Sunday stuck in the apartment. You could say this was foreshadowing as Conor would be re-decorating the bedroom three months later for my return home from hospital & rehabilitation. We completed our efforts to kill some time and like normal we had dinner, watched some TV, and crept off to bed.
It’s 6 AM on Monday, 8th June 2020 and the dog, Charlie, has woken me up to go toilet. I take the opportunity to do the same and I have this uneasy feeling. Nonetheless, I head back to bed to catch the rest of my sleep. Something doesn’t feel right and it’s way more than feeling groggy from being woken. I can’t seem to get comfortable on my right side, the side I sleep on, in fact now that I’ve started to think about it that whole side feels weird, different, and not a part of me. I head back to the bathroom feeling compelled to check my face and there it is, broken, wonky, and unable to be my face. By the time I cross the landing, and back to the bedroom, my feet are no longer mine either and my eyes are spinning. I climb onto the bed and at 28 years of age, I manage to shout to my boyfriend.
“I’m having a stroke! Call an ambulance!” my voice is no longer mine now either. Conor wakes with a bolt and scrambles across the bed.
“Smile, try to smile!” I knew by his face that he now too knew I was having a stroke. He picked up his phone and called the emergency services while I now lay flat on the bed. When the paramedics arrived, a debate ensued.
“It’s probably bels palsy.” said one. “What drugs has he taken?” asked the other. They finally relented and the call was put through to the emergency department as a “Stroke Call”.
I was brought into the “resus” part of the emergency department where a Dr repeatedly told me that I was going to be OK as they worked to save my life. I couldn’t see anything at this point, and it was less sore to keep my eyes closed. My memory of the rest of the day is unclear, fuzzy, and disjointed. Stroke fatigue had settled in and all I wanted to do was sleep.
My awakening to stroke recovery
I woke up in the acute stroke ward. It was dark and I was a little bit confused. I needed to use the toilet, so I pressed the call bell that had been clipped to my bed sheet. When the nurse came, I explained that I needed to use the toilet she handed me a bottle and left me. So, naturally, having never used a urination bottle before I attempted to stand at the side of the bed to use it. The floor came quickly, the urine bottle joined me and to my surprise, a huge amount of blood was coming from somewhere too. As the nurses hauled me back onto my bed it became abundantly clear that the situation was far worse than I initially thought. I couldn’t even stand up. As I lay on the bed naked having the urine and blood cleaned off my body, I couldn’t think of anything to say to them other than “sorry”. The blood had come from the cannula and line I had ripped from my hand when I fell. I guess that became obvious to me when the nurse put a new one in. It was a frightening, lonely, surreal, and humbling start to my stroke recovery.
The primary diagnosis was “right posterior medulla oblongata infarct secondary to vertebral artery dissection”, a mouthful, I know. My vertebral artery in my neck had dissected, which caused a clot to form. Unfortunately, when this clot became dislodged, it caused a blockage in my medulla oblongata.
“Age is on your side, you’re lucky.”
I don’t know how many times I heard this from medical staff and wanted to scream that I didn’t feel very lucky. That I was supposed to be at home with my boyfriend and my dog. That I should be able to eat, wash, dress, stand and walk. None of this felt lucky.
However, I guess they were right. After three months of working with the best multidisciplinary rehabilitation team a person could ask for, I walked (badly!) out of the hospital unaided. My recovery was still far from over and it continues to this day. My balance will be a permanent issue, my short-term and long-term memory is affected, and the constant brain fog keeps me doubting my mind. The worst symptom I’ve been left with is Central Post Stroke Pain Syndrome in my left leg and arm. It’s a constant burning nerve pain.
Why is awareness so important
At the time of my stroke, I was an engineering student and when I returned home my natural curiosity led me to research more about stroke incidents in Ireland. I was shocked to learn about the near 20% fatality rate, and that almost half of all patients don’t make it to the hospital in time to be considered for thrombolysis. The Irish National Audit of Stroke, 2020 alludes that public awareness of early stroke symptoms and the vital actions required may be the cause.
Knowing the early stroke symptoms saved my life and I was shocked to learn that 78% of people in Ireland don’t know the most vital action to take in the event of a stroke and 43% of people are unaware of any of the early symptoms.
In 2021 I launched “The Stroke Awareness Project” with the simple aim of raising more awareness about the early stroke warning signs through BE FAST (Balance, Eyes, Face, Arm, Speech, Time to act) on social media. The project also aims to raise awareness about the fallout symptoms people live with after suffering a brain injury and how a stroke does not discriminate by age.
I truly believe an online social media presence can help educate the online community in a way that might help reduce the number of stroke patients left with permanent physical, mental, and psychological deficits. I hope my experience can add some weight to the project and not be in vain.