So many little things go into making the perfect Christmas. Wrapping presents for loved ones, decorating the tree and cooking a traditional Christmas dinner to name but a few.
Sadly, the reality for many people living with a chest, heart or stroke illness is they won’t get to enjoy doing these little things this year, or maybe ever again. This Christmas, local health charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) want to raise public awareness about the long-lasting effects experienced by many people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke or have a respiratory condition.
The charity is launching their Christmas ‘Little Things’ campaign to highlight many of the little things that people affected by chest, heart and stroke illnesses might be unable to do and the ways in which the charity can help. Many people affected by such conditions are left with debilitating psychological symptoms and often physical disabilities, leaving them unable to do many of the things we take for granted in our lives like hugging loved ones, buttoning clothes, or getting out and about.
Around 17% of the population in Northern Ireland are living with chest, heart and stroke conditions and these include people like Bosco McShane and Linda Crooks.
Bosco, a 44-year-old dad of seven from Coalisland, found his life turned upside when he suffered a sudden bleed on the brain, or haemorrhagic stroke, in the run up to Christmas in 2019. Bosco says, “I was probably the last person you would have expected to have a stroke. I was always on the go, a dad of six and busy with my Youth Ministry work. I don’t drink or smoke, and thought I was fighting fit. I had even run in the London Marathon in April and the Dublin Marathon in October just a couple of weeks beforehand.”
Understandably, Bosco’s stroke has had a massive impact on him and his family. He says, “It impacted the whole family. The kids felt it when I had to stay in hospital for a month after the stroke and it was tough for my wife Lynette worrying about me and having to take care of all the wee ones on her own.”
“At Christmas especially, it’s the little things that are affected that can annoy you the most. For me the Christmas lights blinking on the tree triggers something – I can’t even sit in the room with them. Background noise is also more difficult. When you have all the children in playing with their toys and they’re making noise, it can be very tough for my head. I don’t want to be a ‘bah humbug’ and take down the lights or take away the toys, but sometimes I just have to avoid it or go and have a lie down which is hard. It affects the whole family that way – they’re watching you and trying to keep the noise down if I need to have a sleep during the day, which is tough.”
“During the Christmas season, going out and about shopping can be more difficult too. When I’m paying and having to count out my money, it takes a lot more concentration. You feel conscious that you’re taking a long time and holding up the queue. Those small things can be tough, which people don’t always realise, because on the outside you look okay.”
Linda, from Belfast, had a life-changing stroke almost 3 years ago when she was 62. Linda explains, “The day I had my stroke was a perfectly normal Sunday. I started to feel a bit dizzy, so I went and lay down upstairs. When I woke up, I needed the bathroom, but I couldn’t get up. I was paralysed on my left side. I banged on the floor to alert my husband Allen, and when he came up, he knew straight away I was having a stroke.”
“I was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and there it was confirmed I’d had an ischaemic stroke, which means there was a blockage in one of the arteries in my brain.”
After her stroke, Linda felt like her whole world had come to an end. Linda says, “I was devastated and felt that I wasn’t me anymore and frustrated that I couldn’t do the things I used to do. I had to relearn to walk. When I first came home from hospital, I couldn’t do anything with my left hand.”
How Linda is able to celebrate Christmas has also been affected by her stroke. She says, “At Christmas it upsets me when I can no longer do some of the little things I used to love doing and I’m reminded again that my life will never be the same after having the stroke. We love Christmas in our house, and I always loved putting the Christmas tree up and decorating the whole house. But now it’s too difficult for me to stand up and hang all the decorations. I can’t write Christmas cards anymore either or cook the Christmas dinner. The wee things like that you don’t think of are changed forever.”
Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke is there to help people like Bosco and Linda get back to being able to do the little things. The charity provides life-changing care and support services to anyone at risk of, or currently living with, chest, heart and stroke conditions.
Bosco explains how the charity has supported him, “One of the Care Co-ordinators from Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke contacted me. At that stage we were entering lockdown during the pandemic. Only for their support, I was lost. When you come home from hospital, you’re left on your own. The support from the charity meant I was getting Zoom meetings and support phone calls and being able to speak to other people who had the same experience. They have been through it too and come out the other end. Having those chats were worth their weight in gold.”
“I couldn’t recommend the support I received from NI Chest Heart & Stroke highly enough – anything I needed, they were there. They kept in touch and supported you, and thanks to them I’m keeping positive. We even welcomed another baby to the family, Macartan, a year after my stroke. The house is full of football, gymnastics, dancing, singing and all sorts! With 7 children aged between 2 and 12, Christmas will be hectic, but it’s those little things and moments with family that will make it special.”
Linda has nothing but praise for the charity. She says, “I feel so blessed that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke came into my life. I started their PREP programme in May. It lasted for 6 weeks and I enjoyed it so much, I went back for another 6 weeks. Each week we’d do exercises with a physio and each week I was finding I could do the exercises for longer. It really helped with my physical recovery.”
“It has helped with my walking. When I was in hospital I said I want to get home and walk my dog Olive. I still can’t walk her on my own, but my walking has improved and with my crutch I can go out with Allen every morning and join them.”
One of the biggest benefits of PREP for both Linda and her husband Allen has been the emotional support which has helped the couple understand Linda’s stroke and its full impact. Linda explains, “At PREP, we learn about different aspects of stroke and how to manage it. When I was finding it hard to control my emotions and taking them out on my family, Allen used to take it personally, but from going to the class, we both learned it’s because of my brain being affected by the stroke.”
“Being able to go along and share with people who know what you’re going through has done my mental health the world of good too. We’re all supporting each other, and it gives us hope.”
“My stroke was almost 3 years ago, and life has changed for the better. Allen and I now volunteer each week at PREP, and at an NICHS Young Stroke Group. I’m so happy to be able to give back to others like me who are starting their stroke journey.”
Ursula Ferguson, Director of Care Services at NICHS, comments; “NI Chest Heart & Stroke has been supporting people in Northern Ireland for over 75 years. Last year we supported around 17,000 people through our support and physical rehab programmes for people living with chest, heart and stroke conditions, as well as through our prevention programmes which work with workplaces, schools and community settings. We also campaign for better care and awareness of these conditions as well as fund research to advance treatments and prevention work.”
“There are however over 335,000 people living with a chest, heart or stroke condition here so there is still plenty to be done. As a local charity, almost 90% of all our work is funded exclusively by public donations and these funds are essential in enabling us to continue to provide life-changing services for people like Bosco and Linda and their families. Without the public’s generous support, we could not help people across Northern Ireland enjoy more of the little things they love, this Christmas and beyond.”
Jackie Trainor, Director of Income Generation at the charity adds; “We understand everyone is finding it tough at the moment with the cost of living crisis but as Ursula mentioned, without the support of the Northern Ireland public, we would not be able to continue to help the thousands of local people who need us. We really appreciate any support people can give us. From a £1 donation, which may seem so small, to thousands of pounds from a fundraising event, every pound is important and really helps us to make a difference.”
To find out more about supporting the charity’s ‘Little Things’ campaign this Christmas, visit www.nichs.org.uk/littlethings