On Sunday 13th February 2011 my whole world changed. It was lunchtime, we had a houseful as always, and I was in the kitchen getting the spuds ready when my young grandson Harry ran in saying, “Grandpa’s stuck.”
My daughter Sinead and I found my husband Joe lying on the living room floor, not moving. We tried to get him up but he couldn’t move. Sinead immediately called an ambulance which arrived within minutes. We were rushed to the Daisy Hill Hospital here in Newry and the journey there was just the worst. We were terrified of what was happening to Joe, not knowing if he’d make it there alive.
We were told it was a stroke. Thankfully Joe survived but it did damage him terribly. He lost all movement in his right side and today still can’t speak or write – though he understands everything, which is often very frustrating for him.
Let me tell you a bit more about Joe. He and I have been together 49 years and been blessed with 9 children and 19 grandchildren (at the moment!). Joe’s 69 now and is a retired schoolteacher – he used to really enjoy teaching mathematics at St Patrick’s High School in Banbridge. He loved helping children learn and develop, to be the best they could be. He also still loves his football and horse racing. He was a happy, active, family man who enjoyed nothing more than spending time with his grandchildren bouncing on his knee (though not all at once of course!).
But now Joe is different after the stroke. He was able to come back to our house after 16 weeks in hospital. He had no movement or speech and when we got home I closed the door and for the life of me I couldn’t think of what we were to do next. I had no idea of how to care for Joe, no clue how his condition might change over time. I knew he was scared, and worried that he was now just a burden to me.
It seemed sadly like our life had ended on our living room floor that Sunday afternoon.
Now that I look back I can see that actually that was the start of the second part of our lives. Because just a week or so after we arrived home – when Joe and I were at our very, very lowest – Ann McAlinden from Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke called me.
Joe had been referred to NICHS and Ann got in touch to tell us about how they could help us to deal with Joe’s condition to move forward. Ann gave us time, information and understanding just when we needed it most. She gave me real, practical advice and information about stroke. Thanks to Ann, I understood that when Joe got angry or frustrated it wasn’t him, it was the stroke.
However the most significant thing that NICHS has given Joe and I was the chance to meet other people in our situation, at our local stroke scheme in Bessbrook. I tell you, Joe really didn’t want to go the first time Ann suggested it. He resisted and made it clear he wasn’t interested but I said, “Come on, let’s go once just so we can say we tried it.” Well, on our arrival at the group it quickly became apparent it was just the most amazing, inspiring place. There were 30 or so other people there – all stroke survivors and their loved ones – talking, playing games and most importantly really enjoying their time together.
It was a huge turning point for both of us. Joe would tell you that he felt so alone, but being in that room made him, and me, realise that he wasn’t the only one, that there are people like Joe and families like ours all over Northern Ireland. For the first time since 13th February 2011, we had hope for our future.
That was our first Friday Stroke Scheme and Joe’s been going regular as clockwork ever since. It’s become the absolute highlight of Joe’s week; he looks forward to going out and seeing everyone there so much. We love the mix of physical exercise, fun activities like boccia and the discussions on preventing future strokes and healthy lifestyles. And, do you know, through the stroke scheme we’ve found out that the stroke has given Joe a new passion – singing! Before Joe wouldn’t have sung a note in public but now there’s just no stopping him. When it’s song time at the stroke scheme he joins in with the tune, humming away and his eyes shine with pure pleasure. Joe’s favourite song is ‘Molly Malone’, which I’m sure you know yourself. It’s so lovely to see him there singing away, enjoying himself.
I know now that actually we are lucky. We have each other, we have our wonderful children and beautiful grandchildren. Joe has a big group of people to help him and I have my children to turn to for help and support when I need it which I often do. But I also know it was a difficult journey and I know the difference that the NICHS Stroke Family Co–ordinator and the local Stroke Scheme made to us. So if you are in the same situation as we were, don’t hesitate to contact them.
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.