Kim Colhoun is a stroke survivor and a busy mum from Saintfield Co. Down. She lives with her husband Basil and her two boys, and right next door to her parents. She manages her own business as a driving instructor. Her talent for driving rubbed off on her boys Dean and Ben who love quads and autotesting – Dean has represented Ireland twice on a global stage.
Family life changed on the morning of 22 February 2017 when Kim had a stroke.
Circumstances of the stroke
The day started like any other, Kim was getting ready for another day of driving lessons and her husband was getting ready for work. At breakfast she was taking a vitamin supplement and Basil noticed it was dribbling down her chin, her face had dropped and she seemed confused. Kim tells us, “Basil asked me ‘what’s wrong with you?’ I tried to reply but I couldn’t talk, my arms weren’t working and I’d lost movement on my right side’.
Her husband Basil remembered the FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) campaign and immediately thought Kim could be having a stroke. Up until this point Basil didn’t realise someone so young could have a stroke. Kim was only 48 years old. “I thought, ‘She couldn’t be having a stroke. She’s far too young.’ I never realised that people in their 30s and 40s could have a stroke. I thought it was just older people. This is something that we really need to raise awareness about.”
Fortunately for Kim the paramedic arrived quickly and she was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she was diagnosed in minutes. Kim tells us, “I couldn’t understand what all the commotion was about, the bed was surrounded by clinicians all fussing over me.”
After scanning her brain the doctors knew the left side of her brain was where a large blood clot had formed. They told Kim and her family that her stroke was suitable for thrombolysis, which is a clot busting medicine.
“Within two hours I was given clot busting drugs. Then I also underwent a new type of surgery called ‘thrombectomy’ where they inserted a thin tube into the artery in my groin, fed it up to my brain and then physically removed the clot.”
After the surgery Kim was left with no speech, an inability to read and no motor skills but crucially, she was alive.
She tells us “It was like a bomb exploded in the filing cabinet of my brain. I could recognise individual letters and understand spoken conversations but I couldn’t speak, read and there was certainly no chance of me returning to work and giving driving lessons for a while.”
All of Kim’s basic limb coordination had been lost. She remembers, “In the hospital, I was handed an iPad but I couldn’t coordinate my arms, hands and fingers all at once to use the touch screen. I had to re-learn everything from scratch.”
Because Kim was treated with life-saving thrombectomy surgery within a few hours of the stroke happening, she improved quickly. After two days in hospital she was able to recall and sing an entire Ed Sheeran song, not very well!! She tells us, “Disappointingly I was told by the speech therapist that recalling and singing a song used different parts of the brain to speaking and reading. All the same, it felt good to communicate.
“After seven days I was discharged from hospital. I was taking things slowly. I still had very slow and limited speech. At home a community OT and Speech Therapist visited me four times a week for the first couple of months. Once those visits stopped I was on my own. I still had a lot of work to do to get my coordination and speech back so I could start to think about going back to work.”
How she met Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke
“I had my stroke in February 2017. At the hospital a nurse told me about the work Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke do. By April, I started attending the Post Rehab Exercise Programme (PREP) class with NICHS. This was a 2 and a half hour long class every week for 6 weeks.
“I was nervous about going to PREP because I thought it was just going to be elderly people in my class, but it wasn’t. There was another person in the class a similar age that had the same surgery as me. Some of the stroke survivors had great speech but a lot of invisible symptoms like anxiety issues.
“The PREP classes are quite intense but it’s at your own level. Each week you complete a set of exercise circuits, ‘competing’ against yourself from the previous week. The aim of this is to get back your motor coordination skills. I’m really competitive so the exercise suited me and I could see each week my motor skills were returning.
“After the exercise session we would sit down and chat about care plans, everyday routines, and our own experiences of living with stroke.
“It was a massive aid to my recovery to hear that other people are in the same boat as me.”
“The stroke had an impact on my whole family – my husband, two sons, mum and dad. They were all very shocked that someone my age could have a stroke. My parents never expected this to happen to their daughter. I didn’t want to be a burden to my family but as I am self employed, it has had an impact financially. My confidence also took a knock and I became more dependent on my family for simple things like shopping. At first I found it difficult to count out money or speak to the shop assistants. I preferred not to go shopping alone.
“The homework the hospital gave me alongside the PREP classes helped me to get back my coordination and confidence. My family all noticed the difference in me too. Four weeks after my stroke I was back driving but not teaching. Eight weeks after my stroke I rejoined the gym. Nine weeks after my stroke I was able to ride my horse 3-4 times a week. Milestone after milestone!”
What life is like now
“I listen to a lot of audio books now. I get frustrated reading paper books because I take in the words a lot slower than I used to. To help with my short term memory I bake. I tend to keep going back to the recipe books to check I’ve recalled the recipe correctly.
“Since finishing PREP I’ve started back at work on a part time basis. Being a driving instructor it’s very testing to put myself in a pressurised position where I need to be able to clearly differentiate between left and right and say exactly what I intend to when I am directing a pupil.
“My goal now is to return to work full-time. I’ve been out in my car on a voluntary basis with some students to get the practice in. Initially I had difficulties with my left and rights as well as my speech but I’m getting better and determined to improve. I don’t want to change my career because I love it and I’m too young to retire.”
“When I went back to the doctor after 12 weeks. I was told that my recovery was remarkable. I think the reason for that was the support of my family and friends and my own determination.
“My advice to others in the same situation would be that acceptance is very important. Strokes can happen to anyone at anytime and it can be hard to understand why it has happened to you. Once you are treated, it’s important to accept it has happened and move onto your recovery as quickly as possible.”
Kim concludes “I spent a lot of time reflecting on both how far I’ve come and appreciating how lucky I am to have had such a great experience in the hospital and with the charities that have helped me. The treatments I received were not available to patients 10 or 20 years ago. Without these I probably would have died. Programmes like PREP have helped me to get back on my feet and I have now become a NICHS Volunteer and Ambassador, hoping to pass on some of my own experiences to other Stoke Survivors”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.