Clodagh Dunlop, from Magherafelt, suffered a major stroke 8 years ago at the age of 35. Clodagh’s life changed overnight as her stroke resulted in Locked-in Syndrome. Clodagh was completely paralysed and only able to communicate through blinking. Thanks to determination and hard work, Clodagh has recovered well from her stroke and wants to use what happened to her for something positive. Clodagh is now a volunteer for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) and this Volunteers’ Week she is sharing her story and how it has led her on a path of helping others.
Clodagh explains; “I had been unwell and believed I was having a stroke. I asked my sister to call an ambulance. I was taken to a local hospital and as I was waiting in A&E I had a brainstem stroke. I was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where I had surgery and a massive blood clot removed from my brainstem. I was given a 50/50 chance of survival.”
Thankfully, Clodagh survived but she was to stay in hospital in Belfast for nearly 8 months, fighting through an experience most people would consider their worst nightmare. Clodagh says; “When I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit after my surgery it was a terrifying experience. I couldn’t move a muscle but inside my head I was screaming ‘I’m here!’ I was a prisoner in my own body.”
For almost 3 months Clodagh was unable to move or speak. She could only communicate by blinking, but her mind remained completely alert, and she was fully aware of everything that was happening around her. Eventually Clodagh started to show some signs of recovery and was transferred to the Brain Injury Unit at Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast where she had to learn to breathe, swallow, walk and talk again. On discharge from hospital, Clodagh completed Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Post Rehab Exercise Programme (PREP) and her relationship with the charity began.
Clodagh says; “I spent a long time in hospital and, like many people who suffer a significant stroke, when I was discharged the services came to an abrupt stop. This had a real impact on my mental health and wellbeing, particularly as a young stroke survivor. There was a real void in aftercare and unfortunately it led to me having suicidal thoughts- but into that void came NICHS and their PREP programme.”
“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 offered by the health service, to meet their longer-term care needs. NICHS deliver PREP across Northern Ireland and vitally I was able to attend PREP locally, so it was accessible to me.”
“PREP gave me the opportunity to meet other stroke survivors. I was with people who understood my feelings because we had shared experiences as stroke survivors. With PREP I was in a community where people were able to understand me and what I was going through. I wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by stroke. I was able to talk to people openly and honestly. Stroke survivors would say, ‘This is difficult, it is challenging, but you can go on to thrive and live a full life.’ That was what I needed to hear for my wellbeing. At PREP everyone’s journey was different, but we all had the same end goal in that we all wanted to recover from stroke.’
Clodagh found the benefits of PREP so great she was keen to give something back to the charity. She explains; “NICHS may not realise how important PREP was to me, but the group was a turning point in my wellbeing and mental health post-stroke.”
“Stroke will always be a part of my life; I have made a good recovery but do have disabilities from my stroke. I am back at work full-time. It pains me that other stroke survivors are still going through what I experienced, in that services stop abruptly on discharge from hospital. The impact of this should not be underestimated.”
“I know how vital PREP is and as a stroke survivor I want to help make sure there are funds available for the charity to continue to deliver their vital services within local communities. I know from my experience how important NICHS’s work is, but also know they rely on the public’s generosity to be able to do what they do. I volunteer as a way to give back to my community and say thank you for what the charity has done for me. I want to raise awareness and hopefully, in turn, money so NICHS can continue to help as many people as possible.”
Clodagh has been a volunteer Community Ambassador with NICHS for 5 years. She says; “I wanted to give something back and it was a natural progression from using NICHS services to becoming an ambassador.”
“As a Community Ambassador I go to events to tell people my story and raise awareness of stroke and what Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke does to help people like me. I go out to events and accept cheques from fundraisers on behalf of the charity. I like being able to thank people for taking the time and effort to raise money for the charity because I am a real-life example of someone who has been helped by them.”
“People often ask, ‘What can a charity do?’ and I am able to say, ‘Actually they do really help.’ They can't make you better, but they play a significant role in helping you after a lifechanging event. I have experienced what they do and the difference this makes to people’s lives. Volunteering with NICHS is my way of saying thank you for that.”
Caoimhe Devlin, Head of HR and Volunteering at Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke says; “We are so grateful for all the help and support Clodagh gives to our charity and we would like to take this opportunity to thank her, 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.”
“As the pandemic hit, all of the NICHS volunteer team were stood down for their safety and wellbeing. Whilst many of the team have returned to their roles we are now in a position where we need more volunteers and are recruiting for 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 www.nichs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/volunteering .”