“I thought an insect had bitten me, but when my sister looked at my face, she knew it was a stroke.”
Annmarie Baxter thought she had been bitten by an insect, but when she turned to her sister, asking if her lip was swelling, Ursula saw that Annmarie’s face was drooping and she recognised the symptoms of a stroke.
Instead of reassuring her that her face wasn’t swelling, her sister asked her “Can you lift your arms?” “Of course I can” was Annemarie’s response – but she couldn’t. And as she replied, Ursula could hear that her sister’s speech was slurred. Within 90 minutes Annmarie was being treated for a stroke in Craigavon Area Hospital. She was 46 years old.
Two years earlier, a hysterectomy had triggered an early menopause and she began taking HRT. She had a history of high blood pressure but went to the gym and kept fit. However, working full time as a primary school teacher and being mother to two teenage children both facing important exams meant that Annmarie had a lot on her plate.
“I was enjoying life, going to the gym regularly, really doing well,” recalls Annmarie. “But then the headaches started. I had headaches all the time. I was living on paracetamol. I went to the GP and my blood pressure was very high. The GP signed me off work but we just couldn’t get my blood pressure under control.”
The weekend before her stroke, Annmarie and husband Paul went to Derry. “As we were walking around, I felt a strange heaviness in my left leg. I wouldn’t describe it as pain, but I couldn’t get comfortable. And I was unbelievably tired.”
Three days later, on a Tuesday morning in February 2014, Annmarie had a stroke, caused by a blood clot deep within her brain.
“My blood pressure was still very high,” says Annmarie, “and I was extremely wound up, very excitable. I was talking constantly. But I was also in denial. I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with me. I wouldn’t believe that I had had a stroke. However, when the OT was doing tests and asked me to tell the time, I couldn’t. I have been teaching children to tell the time for years and yet I couldn’t do it. That’s when I realised something had happened deep inside my brain.
“The doctor took me off my HRT immediately and I was plunged into full menopause, on top of recovering from a stroke. Believe me, that is not an ideal combination! Even now, I’m not always sure what is related to my stroke and what is related to menopause.”
Annmarie’s immediate aim was to get back to work. She took part in Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke’s PREP programme which helped her with her physical recovery and understanding of what had happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence. But returning to her job as a primary school teacher in September, seven months after her stroke, wasn’t as easy as she hoped.
“As I was going back to school, my eldest, Conal, was heading to university in London. That would be difficult for any mum, but my emotions were heightened by the impact of my stroke, my increased sense of vulnerability and life’s fragility and the effects of the menopause, and to be honest, I found it much more difficult than I expected. Beth Vance, the Stroke Family Support Co-ordinator from Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke was great to talk to, and with her help and my very supportive family, I got through it.
“It’s not been easy. The tiredness is very hard to cope with. It’s not a tiredness that anyone else can understand. Stroke can cause fatigue anyway. You are so tired you can’t sleep. Your body is sore from being tired, almost every day. And on top of that, the menopause makes it more difficult to sleep.
“The other long term affect is that walking is difficult. I have to walk more slowly now, which makes keeping up with a class of P2 children tricky!
“Life is challenging, but I am lucky to have a second chance and lucky to be surrounded by a loving, supportive family. It’s still a full life, but it’s a different life.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.