Portrait: Anna

In October 2021, I was on the way back from a university rugby match when the vehicle I was travelling in was in a car accident. Everyone was unharmed but shortly after I had a massive headache. The next morning, I went to A&E with slurred speech, head pain and (unbeknownst at the time) a TIA.

A little bit about Anna 

In October 2021, I was on the way back from a university rugby match when the vehicle I was traveling in was in a car accident. Everyone was unharmed but shortly after I had a massive headache. The next morning, I went to A&E with slurred speech, head pain, and (unbeknownst at the time) a TIA. I was misdiagnosed and discharged with a concussion. Later that evening I was walking with my friends when I twisted my neck and then collapsed. I had an ischemic brain stem stroke, caused from an artery dissection that hadn’t been treated in time. I lost all right-sided movement, balance, and the ability to speak and swallow. I had emotional lability and a small amount of spasticity in my ankle. 

Although most of these functions have massively improved, I still experience effects such as fatigue, especially after socialising for hours. I get bursts of anxiety when I have to make the gap from the train to the platform or crossing the road. I went bowling with my family recently and the ball was too heavy for my fingers to hold.

It’s little things like that that shouldn’t get me down but they do. I’m 21 now and socialising is no longer what it used to be.

My hobbies are reading and dancing. I used to enjoy playing rugby but I may never play again. Luckily, I haven’t lost my ability to read and I’m doing Zumba classes at my gym in the hope of going back to my dance classes one day.  


How my rehab team supported me 

Throughout my journey, I had a lot of help rehabilitating. The Physiotherapists spent hours perfecting the mechanics of walking, from heel strikes to step movements in the hospital corridor. I didn’t end up at a rehabilitation hospital until I was nearly walking independently so the physios at this hospital had me doing squats in the stroke ward. The Occupational Therapists (OT) have been amazing in helping get my arm and hand movement back. From learning how to dress with one weaker arm, and constantly reminding me to use my right hand for things such as texting and drinking (and not to cheat!), they taught me so much. I am so grateful now that I followed their advice and didn’t give up on trying to use my weak side because it has gotten so much stronger. For example, I’ve managed to type this story with two hands! In my first hospital when I was re-teaching my brain to swallow, a therapist sat patiently with me spooning thickened hot chocolate into my mouth whilst I coughed and giggled my way through it. 

At the rehab hospital, I had access to a psychologist, which was unbelievably important.

It took me a while to stop replaying the what-ifs and to process that I’d had a stroke, that everything in my usually busy and non-stop daily life had grounded to a halt. The sessions I was given allowed me to pour out all my fears and trauma - I can’t underline how essential this was. Even without psychology, so much of my physical rehabilitation only happened because I had people to talk and cry to who understood or empathised with what I was going through. The SALT community team helped improve my pronunciation and increase the amount of breath I could hold both in my diaphragm and my mouth, which the stroke had affected but I never imagined could be improved! 


Staying motivated during at-home recovery 

Leaving the hospital, I was scared that all my rehabilitation would stop because I didn’t have a patient timetable with all these people whose job it was to fit me into their day. Luckily, the community physio and the other therapists gave me some things to do and I kept motivating myself. When I struggled, my family helped motivate me. My therapy became more functional. At first, I found the number of things I couldn’t do in a more independent home environment really upsetting but I stuck with it until it’s become much easier. Some of the activities I’ve done such as making bracelets, painting by numbers, learning (badly) to touch type, or tasks like carrying cups of tea up the stairs, shaving my legs, or writing in a daily journal have been functional but kept me engaged in my recovery. 


My support system 

I am lucky to have amazing friends who face-timed and phoned me, who sent me get well soon presents, birthday cards, and Christmas cards when I was in the hospital. They never ever treated me like I had changed or acted differently, even when I sounded extremely different or at first when I couldn’t even talk, and my mom had to relay what I was trying to say. Since coming out of the hospital, I’ve met up with a lot of them. Although most of my friends are away busy studying at universities, they always checked up on me, even months after my stroke. They have been so supportive in person too and will run ahead to check a location is open to save me from walking so far or opening a bottle without saying anything if they see me struggling to do so. 

My mom is the biggest support in my life and with Covid not allowing friends and family to visit in hospital, she was my lifeline.

She would paint my nails when I couldn’t use my hand - a material thing but one which made me feel better. She was given short and strict visiting hours in the afternoon when I needed a nap so she would often arrive just to see me fall asleep. But she’d be there when I woke up. My auntie came up to my university town when I was first really ill, and they took turns at staying with me. Part of my family being so supportive is that they help each other. What has made the distress my stroke caused so much more bearable is knowing that the people who cared about me had people to look out for them too. 


Moving forward to a bright future 

I’m currently 8 months down the line and I’m planning to go back to university in October. I still have things to work on, especially with regard to my hand, but life definitely isn’t over as I initially thought it was. It took me away from the life I was living and it was tough to watch things carry on when I should have been part of them. What has been so surprising to me and others is that stroke can occur in young people and that there are many of us too. More awareness of young people experiencing strokes could lead to more accurate and quicker diagnoses. Some advice I would give is don’t give up. If you believe you can, you’re already most of the way there. I think there have been many times when I’ve given up or not kept on persevering after something has been really difficult, but I just have to remember that I have the power to stay positive and keep a good perspective. If you keep plodding on, one day you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come. Bad days can happen and that’s part of the recovery process, but start fresh the next day and take each day as it comes.

The therapists at the start of my journey gave me a poster that had a Hemingway quote on it that I think helped me stay hopeful from the moment I received it up until now: “…  and if you ask ‘What if I fall?’ Oh but darling, what if you fly?”  

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