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Belfast stroke survivor turned volunteer and family raise over £7000 in memory of loved ones lost to heart illness

31 May 2024
Jennifer volunteering

Jennifer Reid, from Belfast, has suffered two silent strokes and also understands the devastating impact heart conditions can have on a family, having tragically lost her father, Hugh, and brother, John, to heart illness. Jennifer is determined however to use what has happened to her for something positive and is now a volunteer and fundraiser for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS). This Volunteers’ Week (3-9 June) Jennifer is sharing her story and how it has led her on a path of helping others.

Jennifer had been suffering with mystery symptoms for some time when, in 2020, she was told that she had unknowingly suffered two cerebellum strokes in the back of her brain. Jennifer recalls; “I knew something was wrong with me but, for a long time, I didn’t know what. I was dealing with fatigue, memory loss, and struggling with my emotions. I thought maybe it was depression or the menopause, and I was originally diagnosed with vertigo. I was worried because I knew I wasn’t myself, so I asked for more tests. I was sent for a CT scan which found a lesion in the front of my brain. They didn’t think it was anything to worry about, but to investigate further, they sent me for an MRI. It revealed I had suffered two strokes to the back of my brain.”

Hugh Taggart

Jennifer adds; “Worst of all, because the scar tissue had turned black, they couldn’t tell me when it had happened. All they could tell me was that I didn’t have them in the past six months. I’ve tried to pinpoint when my strokes could have happened – maybe during a stressful time or maybe when I was out on a night out and didn’t realise. I will probably never know for sure.”

Sadly, a year before finding out about her strokes, Jennifer lost her father, Hugh Taggart, to the same illness. “My dad had a stroke around the end of October 2019. He spent three months in hospital over the Christmas period, and then we got him home for three months before he passed away in March. In February the following year, I found out about my stroke.”

“Dad had suffered another stroke 4 years previous, which he recovered well from, and we thought he would recover again. This stroke however was on the other side of the brain, and it left him practically paralysed. His mind was still working but he could not speak, and he could barely move. He suffered that for six months before he passed. So, whenever I found out about my strokes, it was very scary because I pictured the same happening to me.”

Jennifer Collecting

The strokes left Jennifer with feelings of weakness and tiredness and have affected her eyesight and memory. “I have short term memory loss, so I have to write everything down, set reminders and alarms and have my family help remind me of things like appointments. My emotions were also affected. I was suffering with these symptoms before I found out about the strokes, and only then did it start to make sense why I was feeling this way.”

Jennifer was referred to Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Post Rehab Exercise Programme (PREP). PREP is a physiotherapy led, community-based course which helps rebuild people's lives after stroke through exercise and education. It is designed for stroke survivors who have completed the statutory rehabilitation provided by the NHS to meet their longer-term care needs. Jennifer also went on to volunteer at the programme, and to attend the charity’s Young Stroke Group.

She says; “It was only when I attended PREP that I realised that every stroke looks different. Every person has a different story, and so many people don’t look like they have had stroke - just like me.”

“I remember at my very first PREP class introducing myself- I was very, very emotional trying to get words out. You feel like you are the only person going through this, and then you hear everyone else's stories, and you realise you are not. When you hear how badly some people have been affected you think to yourself, ‘I am lucky’. Tracey Montague, the NICHS Care Services Coordinator for the group, always says, ‘No one is worse off than anyone. Each of our journeys matter just as much as the next person’. Just hearing things like that is amazing. She also tells us, ‘Life is over as you knew it, but life isn't over’. That always stuck with me.”

Ryan and Jennifer

“Attending the PREP classes every week built my confidence, it got me back into exercise again. I started walking more. I started making changes to my lifestyle and lost three stone in weight to help prevent a stroke ever happening to me again. I just loved everything about the group, and that is why I decided to volunteer and give back what I had received.”

Now, Jennifer volunteers at the programme and supports others affected by stroke through their recovery journey. She says; “So many people don’t want the course to end. They enjoy the companionship and talking with others who understand. My volunteer work has been amazing because I feel like I am giving back. It gives me something on my days off work to get up for. You feel like part of a family. Everyone is just so lovely, and they are so welcoming and so glad to see you. You do really feel like you are making a difference, and it is a great feeling to do something not because you are getting paid for it but because you want to do it.”

“Some of the participants are shocked when they find out I have had a stroke. Tracey introduces the volunteers when a new course starts and tells everyone a bit about our journeys. Seeing our progress gives the new attendees hope. It is so rewarding seeing the difference from when someone comes in for the first time and they think they can’t do it and they are very emotional, and as the weeks progress, I see the smile on their face and how far they have come.”

To others considering volunteering with the charity Jennifer says; “If you have the time and the energy to volunteer, 100% do it. You get so much out of it and so much more than you realise.”

Jennifer with brother John Taggart

Jennifer and her family have also supported NICHS through fundraising for the charity, raising an incredible £7,091 to date. Jennifer says; “My son Ryan and I took part in abseils down the Europa Hotel and Belfast Castle. Ryan was one of the youngest people to take part in the Europa Abseil, before he was even 13! We found taking part so rewarding. We are also very proud of my niece, Nicola, who took on a skydive. We have also held bucket collections, with one taking place on what would have been dad's 80th birthday. My dad did a lot of fundraising so when we are fundraising, I feel that we are carrying on his legacy.”

Heartbreakingly, earlier this year the family were struck by tragedy again when Jennifer’s brother, John, passed away suddenly due to a heart attack in his thirties. Jennifer explains; “His heart just stopped. He was only 38. He had been diagnosed with fatty liver disease and diabetes and was trying his best to get himself together and to be healthier. I spoke with him earlier that evening and then got a phone call at around two or three in the morning to say the paramedics were working on him, but he was just gone. He was the youngest in the family, my mummy’s baby. It was such a shock.”

“John had taken part in the fundraising and the events we held in memory of dad, so for him to pass away due to his heart so suddenly was the last thing we thought was going to happen. Now, our fundraising is carrying on our memories of him as well as dad.”

Caoimhe Devlin, Head of HR and Volunteering at Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke says; “We are so grateful for all the help and support Jennifer gives to our charity through volunteering. Furthermore, the fundraising efforts by Jennifer and her family have been phenomenal- to raise over £7,000 for our work is a tremendous achievement.”

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank Jennifer, and all our other volunteers this Volunteers’ Week. At NICHS we depend on the support of our team of committed and compassionate volunteers to allow us to deliver our charitable activities. We involve volunteers in our care services, public health activities, research committees, on our Governance Board, at our fundraising events and as community ambassadors. In short, we involve volunteers in everything we do, and we could not achieve what we do without them.”

“We are currently recruiting for volunteer opportunities across Northern Ireland. Volunteering with NICHS really will make a profound difference to the lives of local people and anyone interested in being part of this can find out more at .”

If you have been inspired by Jennifer’s story you can view NICHS’s current volunteer opportunities at