International Women’s Day (Wednesday 8th March) celebrates inspirational women within our communities and two local women are the epitomes of what it means to be an inspiration. Jamie Houston and Laura Thompson both had strokes at unbelievably young ages, and they are using International Women’s Day to share their inspirational stories. They hope speaking out will help inspire other young stroke survivors to keep fighting on their recovery journey. They also want to raise awareness that stroke is not something that only affects older people- it can happen to anyone, at any age.
When Jamie, from Ballygawley in County Tyrone, was on a night out with a friend last July she expected the night to end with fun and laughter- never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined it would close with her having a stroke.
Jamie explains; “I never thought something like this would ever happen to me, especially not at 30. I’m sharing my experience to help get the message out there that stroke doesn’t just happen to people in their sixties and seventies, as many people might think. Anyone can be affected by stroke. I also want to highlight the importance of the FAST acronym, (Face drooping, Arms not being able to lift, Slurred speech, Time to call 999) so people know the common symptoms of stroke and what to do.”
Recalling the day of her stroke Jamie says, “I was at work at my hair salon as usual, but I just wasn’t myself that day. I had a headache. I was doing things that weren’t like me- I kept dropping things, I’d go out to the back of the salon and then wonder why I was there.”
“I went on out with a friend as planned later that night and she also noticed I wasn’t acting or talking like my usual self. Suddenly, I started losing power in my leg, so we went home. I went to bed and a while later my dad came in to check on me. I told him about my leg and that I also felt like the power in my arm was going- what I didn’t realise was that my face had started to droop, and my speech was slurring. My dad recognised these as stroke symptoms and called an ambulance but unfortunately one wasn’t available, so my sister drove us to the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen.”
Thankfully Jamie was treated very quickly at hospital, which is vital when dealing with stroke. Jamie then spent over a week in hospital when statutory rehabilitation began to help her on her recovery journey. Jamie says, “Physiotherapy and speech therapy started the next day, it was all very quick. Both my grannies had strokes, so I knew how important the rehab exercises are to your recovery. I also knew you have to work on things yourself too to help you have the best chance of recovery, so when I was discharged from hospital, I was determined to do everything possible to get back to being the old me.”
“My mobility and strength were badly affected. I had to use a rollator to help with my walking. But I worked really hard on my rehab, going to physio, going to the gym, doing exercises at home, practicing my speech therapy. I pushed myself to get better. I’m still pushing myself, for example, full power hasn’t returned to my arm, but I believe if I keep working on it, it will.”
“It’s so important for people who are affected by stroke to know it might be a difficult journey, but if you keep going and work hard, recovery is possible. It doesn’t have to be the end of everything you knew before. I’m back at work now and although some days it can be hard and tiring, I’m glad to be back and doing what I love.”
It was a long road for Jamie, but her hard work and determination paid off and thankfully her health improved over the months following her stroke. It was then Jamie started to think about how she might be able to help others in a similar situation.
Jamie explains; “I had worked with Ann Connor from the NI School of Modelling previously and knew that she organised a charity fundraiser every year so I approached her and asked if she would consider doing one for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS). I knew the charity do a lot of great work helping people who have been affected by stroke and wanted to do something to help. She said yes and I got stuck into organising the recent fashion show fundraiser.”
“The show was held at the Valley Hotel in Fivemiletown on 17th February and I still can’t believe what a success it was. The show sold out with over 250 people coming and we raised over £6000 which was split between NICHS and Marie Curie. I am so grateful to everyone who helped with organising the show and to those who came along and donated. The generosity and support have been brilliant.”
“The support from my family has been amazing too, especially from my mummy. I am very lucky to have her and want to say thank you to her for everything she has done to help me get to where I am today.”
Last week Jamie presented Laura, a Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke Community Ambassador, with a cheque for £3016 raised from the fashion show. Laura understands the impact having a stroke at a young age can have all too well. Laura is only 33 but, incredibly, she has already battled through two strokes- the first at just 15 years old, and a mini stroke 10 years later at 25.
Laura says, “I had my first stroke in 2005 when I was only a teenager. I had no symptoms; it came completely out of the blue. I was out with some friends when I just dropped to the ground. I was taken to hospital in Omagh, but nobody’s first thought was for stroke because of my age. The next day I was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where I was in Intensive Care for two months. During that period, after many tests and investigations, it was discovered I had suffered a stroke. When I was well enough, I was then moved to Forster Green Hospital in Belfast to continue my recovery.”
“I was in Forster Green for three months and on the day I was discharged the doctors told me I would never walk again and would need a wheelchair for the rest of my life. But I proved them wrong.”
Like Jamie, Laura put in a lot of extremely hard work during her recovery period. Laura continues; “If I fell when exercising I got back up and tried again. I also had to learn to speak again through speech therapy. The mental impact was hard to deal with too- at 15 years old the only thing I associated with stroke was death. It was difficult but I kept going. My parents were amazing too, helping push me on with my physiotherapy and supporting me every step of the way.”
“I was determined to recover as best I could. There was no stopping me- I did my GCSEs and A Levels, went to university and got a degree in Biomedical Engineering. I then started working full time and it was in 2015 when I had a mini stroke. Thankfully the effects only lasted a few hours, but the MRI scan I had resulted in me being put forward for brain surgery to prevent future strokes.”
“I went to England for the surgery at a specialist unit. There was a 3% chance the surgery could leave me worse off but I also didn’t want to potentially keep having strokes for the rest of my life, so it was a big decision to have to make. Thankfully I came through the surgery ok. My operation was videoed, and it is now used for teaching purposes at Cambridge Hospital.”
“I have no use of my right arm at all and have issues with one of my ankles, but I have come an amazingly long way. Like Jamie I am not defined by my strokes, and I have pushed on to live my life to the full. I drive, work full time, go to the gym- nothing will stop me and that’s a message I am passionate about sharing with others.”
Laura became an ambassador for NICHS after raising money for the charity through a coffee morning and telling them her story. Laura says, “I absolutely love getting out and meeting people who have been affected by chest, heart or stroke conditions and listening to their stories of why they want to support the charity. When I share my story, everyone is always very shocked, but I am happy to tell it to help raise awareness of stroke and of the work Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke does.”
Ursula Ferguson, Director of Care Services at the charity comments; “We are so thankful to Jamie and Laura for sharing their stories and raising awareness of young stroke.”
“Having a stroke is a life-changing reality for thousands of people in our local community every year. As well as the negative impact on physical wellbeing, stroke can reduce independence, confidence, and happiness. Stroke can also affect relationships, take away jobs and careers and render some families isolated within their own homes- but NICHS is here to help with expert care and support.”
“The help available from our Care Services team is extensive and, alongside our Young Stroke groups, includes PREP our physical rehabilitation programme, family support, health education programmes, our Wellness Sessions and emotional support.”
“Our team works across Northern Ireland with people of all ages affected by stroke, alongside their families and carers. They are dedicated to supporting people in adjusting to life with a stroke condition, helping them to enjoy life to the full, re-engage with hobbies, and improve their confidence, independence, and overall quality of life.”
Jamie concludes; “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone out that night last summer, but my stroke still would have happened, and nobody would have known about it. I would have been at home, alone so who knows what the outcome might have been then.”
“I would appeal to everyone, if you don’t feel right go and get yourself checked out as a matter of urgency. With strokes it is so important to get seen as soon as possible. I feel lucky that I’ve recovered well and hopefully my story will inspire those who have had strokes to see that having a stroke does not have to be the end.”
If you have been affected by stroke and need support visit www.nichs.org.uk/our-support-services/stroke for further information about Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s stroke support services.