The Big Issue : Edition 467
THE BIG ISSUE 12 – 25 SEP 2014 11 MY WORD AS I TURNED in bed early one Saturday morning, my right side wouldn’t move with me. Funny, I thought, and then dismissed it out of hand. Women my age don’t have strokes. I went back to sleep and forgot. Denial can be a powerful thing, even for an intensive care nurse. When the same thing happened the following night, I woke up properly. Waking my husband I said, “I’m having a stroke, call an ambulance.” As I sat waiting, feeling disconnected and strangely matter-of- fact, my face drooped on one side and I lost the ability to speak. My symptoms were caused by trans- ischaemic attacks, which are warning signs of stroke. Eventually I did have a full stroke that left me with right-sided paralysis and the inability to speak. Fortunately I lived close to a hospital with a stroke unit, which significantly increased my chances of survival. Stroke, as it happens, can occur in 40-year-old women. Stroke affects one in five Australians and is a leading cause of death. My stroke was caused by an unexplained trauma to an artery in my brain. At hospital I was assessed by a team of neurologists, neurosurgeons and specialist nurses. I was scanned, ultrasounded, bled and observed for 10 days, and was put on blood thinning medication that probably saved my life. There are basically two types of stroke: ischaemic (inadequate oxygen supply) and haemorrhagic (a bleed on the brain). It is vital to correctly diagnose the type of stroke before treating it, as the wrong treatment can cause symptoms to worsen. Getting to a stroke unit is therefore imperative. After 10 days, I was transferred to Melbourne’s Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre with its excellent multidisciplinary team. I underwent intensive therapy: learning to walk again, working on my lifeless arm and hand, learning to speak and to order my thoughts. The walking came quickly and I was up and about within the six weeks I was there, though certainly not with the gazelle- like qualities I’m sure I had before. My arm was more troublesome. I had a great occupational therapist who kept me laughing as I contracted every single muscle in my body, grimacing as I tried to touch my index finger to my thumb. I got there eventually. Speech came back slowly. The therapist told my husband it was like my brain was a library catalogue system, and the stroke had thrown all of the cards up in the air. I just needed to pick them up and put them back in their right place again. Nine years, on I still get the odd stray fact that needs reassignment. During rehab, my emotions caught up with me, as did the spectre of my mortality. It was a truly frightening experience, worsened by the fact that I had two young children (aged two and three at the time). However, that fact became my driving force; the source for what my husband would call my belligerent approach to rehab. I was sometimes able to reflect dispassionately, looking at my recovery with a scientific eye. The neuroplasticity that allowed my brain to rewire itself and the physicality of relearning to use my limbs, were both miraculous and wondrous. Stroke is disabling and potentially fatal. Take it from me, it’s an experience you want to avoid. With Stroke Week upon us (8–14 September), take some time to think about the risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and drinking too much alcohol. Visit your doctor if you’re concerned. Nine years on, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have to stretch out permanently tightened muscles in the morning, and my balance isn’t too crash hot, but essentially I have fully recovered. I’m back at work and have the exquisite joy of raising my children. It sounds twee, but I’ve learned to live in the moment... the hard way. » Alison Bakker is a freelance writer and registered nurse. She lives in Melbourne with her family. A version of this story was first published in Stroke Connections in 2012. For more information about the condition visit strokefoundation.com.au. A MIND-ALTERING EVENT CHANGED ALISON BAKKER’S LIFE FOREVER, ENCOURAGING HER TO VALUE IT EVEN MORE. PHOTOGRAPHBYiSTOCK IN ONE STROKE...