Portrait: Emma

Emma's story highlights how, despite experiencing a stroke and facing multiple life-saving surgeries, she had the courage and determination to rebuild her life. 

It started with dizziness

I woke up with dizziness and felt nauseous. I got out of bed to try to get to the bathroom to vomit, but my legs were weak and I held on to anything I could to make it there. When I reached the toilet I got a wave of lightheadedness over me, so I laid on the bathroom tiles and felt a loss of sensation all down my left side.

I tried to call an ambulance but couldn’t understand why the operator couldn’t understand me.

My sister rang me a couple of times and I tried to speak to her, but she thought it was my 11-year-old. A friend had text me earlier that morning to see how I was feeling as they were over the night before and I went to bed early because I felt unwell. I opened the message but couldn’t reply. They rang while on their work break and couldn’t understand a word I was saying, so they got a colleague to drop them off at my house.

My son had a sleepover the night before and thought I was drunk because of my speech. I had to beg him and his friend to open the door for my friend. When they arrived, I had vomited on myself and they tried to get me off the bathroom floor and into bed. They wanted to call an ambulance and I recall saying “Don’t be so dramatic, I’ll sleep it off and be fine in an hour”. Contrary to what I thought, they knew better and called an ambulance.

The ambulance arrived and I just remember walking down the stairs in my house and saying to my son and his friend that I’ll be back in a second, they’re just giving me a check over. Little did I know, they couldn’t understand me and what I was about to be faced with.


Getting a diagnosis

My blood pressure was low and the weakness in my left side was becoming more severe. A neighbour got into the back of the ambulance and their first thought was that I had taken something. I remember telling her I swear I didn’t and then the ambulance men said they were taking me to the hospital. I got to A&E, and they tried to get me to move from the ambulance bed but my legs wouldn’t work. The doctor spoke to the ambulance men and asked if I could walk. When they reached me, they said I could but with a lot of effort. He knew straight away it wasn’t a drunken state or overdose. I was sent for both MRI and CT scans, as well as verbal assessments.

Before I knew it, I was being transferred to Cork University Hospital - sirens going all the whole way down. I didn’t realise the seriousness of the event or how bad I was. When I got to Cork, a whole team were waiting outside the building for me and one said, ”Hi Emma, I’m going to look after you today. How are you feeling?” and as sarcastic as ever, I said, “I’m great, and you?”, but I didn’t know I wasn’t making any sense.

I was wheeled in for more MRI and CT scans, and a female voice was suddenly near me telling me I needed brain surgery. There were clots in my brain and a big one in my brain stem.

She said ”You’re having a stroke, Emma.” I felt like I was on the outside looking in.

I was brought to surgery, and they went up through the artery from my groin because 3 out of 4 of the arteries in my neck had dissected.


Round 2

I was in recovery and speaking to a nurse when I heard my mum, dad and uncle's voices. A nurse was with me and I could hear the doctor speaking to them. I tried to ask the nurse if my mum was there, but my speech began slurring again. They rushed me back into the surgery room and they had to perform a second brain surgery, only this time it was life-threatening. They had to go through my groin again but had to get into the one good artery in my neck to stent the clot in my brain stem. The main risk was that this artery could collapse and then I’d be instantly dead.

My parents were told that there was a 99% chance of death, and the 1% chance of survival would result in me having locked-in syndrome.

While I was on the table, I remember being greeted by two familiar faces: my mum’s friend Imelda and my granduncle Paddy. For those of you who don’t know these people, they are sadly no longer with us. Paddy wouldn’t look at me or talk to me, but Imelda was different. She told me there was nothing there for me and can I not just be stubborn one last time?

The next thing I remember is my mum’s cold hand on my cheek and the first thing I said was, "Imelda’s here." I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear my mum and dad’s voices. It felt like a black sheet was covering my eyes and all I could see was a thin bright white light. I tried talking but my speech wasn’t making sense. The only thought I remember having was that I was starving.

One thing was for sure: I had no idea what was ahead of me in my recovery. 


One step forward, one step back—but beating the odds

Luckily, I survived, and that’s probably been the highest high of my journey since. The fatigue has been crippling; my physicality improves, then deteriorates. My whole life has changed, and I don’t know how to manage it. I feel helpless most of the time, and even after multiple medical examinations and consultations, the cause of my stroke is still undetermined to this day.

I have a 12-year-old son who keeps me going. Being a single parent doesn’t give me a choice, but I have a huge support system within my family. I have plenty of down days but hope they will dwindle as time goes by, as it’s only been 10 months since my stroke.


Words of advice to other survivors

A quote that I have stuck by is “Que Sera, Sera”. I got this tattooed on me when I was 30 and funnily enough, the side it was tattooed on wasn’t the affected side.

My biggest advice would be to take things day by day and trust that everything will work out.

The hardest thing to do is to set boundaries for yourself as you want to recover as quickly as possible, but in reality, it takes time to understand your deficits and even longer to accept them. Don’t be too hard on yourself and lower your expectations within a realistic range.


After experiencing a stroke and multiple surgeries, Emma’s journey to recovery has been marked by courage and determination. Her story is a testament to the human spirit and continuing through tough times. As Emma rebuilds her life, we invite you to be part of the journey.

Your support can make a difference for brain injury survivors like Emma. Whether it’s through a donation, fundraising or sharing this story, you’ll be helping future stroke survivors rebuild their lives.

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