Birol Calil, a 46 year old who lives in Ballymena, never imagined that a stroke could happen to someone young and active like him. Now he realises just how fragile life is and how things can change in an instant.
Birol is originally from Turkey and his wife Camelia is from Romania. He gave up a successful management job for a large Turkish company in Romania to move to Northern Ireland with their son. All the other members of their family had made the move to work abroad and they wanted to experience this for themselves. They visited a cousin in Ballymena one August and now laugh when they recall how it was lovely, sunny weather when they first visited Northern Ireland so they decided to make the move! They have now lived here for 6 years…..and realise that the sun doesn’t always shine!
Birol had a stroke in 2015 when he was only 45 years old. He explains, “I had a pain in my neck and a pressure in my head for about 2 weeks. I visited the GP, explained my symptoms, and was prescribed paracetamol. Looking back I am disappointed by that but overall, the paramedics, ambulance crew, doctors and nurses are my heroes.
“On the morning of the 28th July, I woke up and the pain in my neck was even worse. I felt very dizzy and there was a great pressure in the right hand side of my head. The best way I can describe the overall feeling is that someone had disconnected me from the charger.”
His wife Camelia remembers, “I phoned the GP and they offered me an appointment for 11am so I took our son to his dental appointment. When I returned home, Birol was much worse. His speech was gone and his eyes and mouth were drooping. He was numb down his left side. I called 999. I thought it was maybe it was his heart as I didn’t know the symptoms of a stroke. Now we make sure all our friends are aware of them.”
The paramedic arrived within 5 minutes and immediately knew it was a stroke. He was in radio contact with the ambulance and his urgency made Birol realise just how serious the situation was.
At this point in the story, Birol and Camelia both start clicking their fingers and laughing. They explain that in the ambulance Birol was drifting in and out of consciousness so the paramedic was fighting to keep him awake by clicking his fingers in his face and asking questions. Birol laughs, “He asked me my name, my age, where I lived, over and over, the same questions. I remember wishing he would ask me different questions as this was getting repetitive!”
At the Antrim Area Hospital Birol had two MRI scans. The doctors and nurses were in constant contact with the Royal Victoria Hospital about his condition and at one point it looked like he would be transferred here for surgery but in the end that wasn’t necessary.
Birol describes the effects of his stroke. “At first I lost my speech, my ability to swallow and my mobility but all these have improved with time.
“I still sometimes have difficulty speaking and finding the right word. It gets worse when I get tired. It does not matter which language I am speaking in.”
Birol is fluent in Turkish, Romanian and English. If you ask him which language he thinks in, he says it is a mixture of all three.
“I can walk short distances without the stick, but I often get panicked by other distractions when I am out walking, like dogs, children or passing cars. My brain cannot easily concentrate on two things at the same time. I have had some panic attacks where I can’t breathe. I get dizzy easily. My short term memory is not good. The strangest effect is that I always feel very cold on my left hand side and have burnt myself because I do not feel temperature properly on this side.”
A Community Stroke Team Nurse called Sharon referred Birol to Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke. Yvonne, our Stroke Family Co-ordinator visited them. Camelia says “I was shocked that there were people who would come to our home to help us.” For both of them, realising that there were people to help has been a very positive part of what has been a difficult experience.
Birol started the PREP (Post Rehab Exercise Programme) in September 2015 and completed two cycles of it.
“I started PREP in September. At that time my balance was terrible and I was walking with a stick. That was one of the most difficult things as I am too young to walk with a stick.
“PREP was a big challenge but the challenge was good for me. I asked myself to do more and more. This was important as I believe that your recovery comes from inside you. But PREP gave me the environment to challenge myself.
“PREP made a huge difference to me. It shortened the time I took to recover.
“At first I found the exercises very hard but now I can do them easily. After my two cycles of PREP I was walking without a stick.
“The education sessions in PREP also increased my knowledge and have helped my recovery. I learnt what may have caused my stroke in the first place and it helped me see what areas of my life I needed to improve and make healthier. I am an educated man. I had good management level jobs in Turkey. But still, there were things I needed to learn. We have made sure we have passed these lessons on to our friends too.”
Birol’s cholesterol is high and following PREP he has made changes to try to keep it under control, though it is a struggle. He gets it monitored regularly now.
He continues, “PREP also taught me to say no and not to make my life so busy and stressful that it affects my health.
“Meeting other people who have had a stroke is also a very important part of PREP. It is a great motivation to be with others. It is easier to recover with others than by yourself.
“By the time I was doing my second cycle of PREP, I had improved so much, I was helping the new people. The first and second week of PREP can be very emotional and I knew that, so was able to help others. At the end of the second cycle, I stayed on to volunteer.”
Birol jokes that he started PREP in September 2015 and has never actually left it. He gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing other people improve and encouraging them to push themselves.
He concludes, “When you have a stroke, your life is very much before and after. This is for the whole family. But what’s done is done and you cannot go back. You have to learn how to enjoy life again. You have to accept this challenge and move forward. You can either learn to live with the issues you have or you can give up. PREP helps you learn to live with the issues with its exercises, increased knowledge, motivation and meeting other people. It has been a very important part of my recovery and I now see the same in the other people I am helping.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.