DETERMINED STROKE SURVIVOR HELPS OTHERS
John Donaghy is a determined man. Told by doctors he would never walk again following a stroke, John is now focusing his efforts on improving the lives of young people in his local area of Ballysally, Coleraine, and the health of his colleagues.
Born and brought up on the North Coast area, John joined the army aged 21 and served for 9 years. He loved his time in the army, spending time in England, Northern Ireland and Germany where he drove huge tank transporters. When he left the army he continued to live in England, working firstly as a lorry driver and then in security, travelling the world to different manufacturing sites where security was an issue.
Sadly, following the breakup of his marriage, John started to experience mental health issues, eventually being hospitalised. At the time, doctors thought he may be bi-polar but in recent years he has been diagnosed with PTSD and has received intensive therapy to help him understand and manage it.
John moved back home to Northern Ireland and started working as a driver again. “I was burning the candle at both ends. At night I was driving down to the docks in Belfast, packing newspapers for shops and then delivering them. Then I was driving back up to Coleraine to the Chronicle Office (the local newspaper), and doing the same for them. When I was around 49 or 50 it all caught up with me and I had a stroke.”
The day John had a stroke, he had just driven his fiancée, Patricia, to work in Portstewart. As he approached university corner, he went to brake but his right foot would not move. “My army driving training kicked in and I used my left foot. I got myself home but I could hardly walk. I didn’t have any pain and had no idea what was happening. I just went to bed and fell asleep.
“When I woke up, my leg was working again so I went to hang my washing out. The next thing I knew, I was looking up at my neighbour. I’d collapsed and lost consciousness.”
John was taken to the Causeway Area Hospital in Coleraine. He had lost movement in both legs and his right arm. His left arm was weak. The doctors ran a series of tests and told him he would never walk again.
But John had other ideas. When the physio was working on the movement in his left arm, he asked for a standing frame as he was fed up lying down. Even though he was shaking with the effort, he managed to pull himself up using the frame.
Next he got a frame with wheels and decided to try to walk. He couldn’t really lift his feet but managed to slide and shuffle them along. The consultant found him halfway along the corridor and asked, “How did you get here?” John told him, “I have lots of determination. I am an ignorant ex-squaddie. I am an ignorant Irishman. So there you go – I walked here!”
When he got out of hospital he could barely walk. But it was May, which to anyone living on the North Coast means bikes. Since moving back home John had never missed the North West 200 and wasn’t going to miss it because of a stroke. He took the walking frame and on practice night, when there are fewer crowds, he walked to see the bikes. His legs were killing him but he was happy.
John’s recovery was not without setbacks. One day, a few months after going home, he was going up the stairs to the bathroom when he couldn’t get a breath. His angina spray did not work so an ambulance was called for. An ultrascan showed that his legs were full of clots. He was immediately given clot busting drugs but his heart rate remained very high and he ended up in cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated twice. He was in hospital for 2-3 weeks.
Despite this, John has made a good recovery. As well as learning to walk again, he also had to learn to write. His right hand is still weak and he found regaining the ability to use his hand was harder than learning to walk again. The physio explained his progress by saying that the brain can relearn by using pathways that haven’t been closed down by the stroke and that his determination helped a lot.
Getting back to work has been difficult for John. He regained his driving licence but only for personal use. He was no longer insured to drive commercial vehicles. He went to the job centre for advice and they sent him on a back to work scheme where he learnt computer skills, amongst other things.
When a volunteer admin role came up at Focus in Family, near to where he lives, he went for it and got the three day a week role. John explains, “Sitting around the house is not good for your mental health. I had never been out of work in my life and it hurt. Getting the job at Focus on Family was really important to me. It gave me a purpose. I felt useful again.
“I went on a training course to learn CPR and through that I was contacted by Emma at Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke about the Well Team programme. Well Team helps organisations and businesses make plans to improve the health and wellbeing of employees.
“Focus on Family already works to benefit other people. We help families who are experiencing family abuse; we help single parents; we support children. We try to show kids that not everything has to revolve around the Playstation and how to avoid drugs or anti-social behaviour. We try to give them a good start in life. But we don’t always focus on our own health.
“As a stroke survivor, I know how important looking after your health is. I have made some poor choices in the past. I used to smoke but I haven’t smoked at all since my stroke. I liked the idea of also doing something for my colleagues who spend their working lives helping the families and young people of Ballysally. Our boss Brendan agreed it sounded good and we both trained as health champions.
“Part of our health and wellbeing strategy is that Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are healthy eating days within Focus on Family. There are also physical activity exercises for staff to do on these days. For the first six months there was a weight loss competition. Staff were divided into three teams and the team who lost the most weight got money to split between them. There was also an individual prize and the lady who won that lost 12/13lbs. Emma from NICHS has also given us talks.”
At the end of September 2017, Focus on Family won the Health and Wellbeing award at the Causeway Coast and Glens Business Awards 2017. John says, “We were amazed that we were up for an award in the first place and thrilled when we won it. It has been really good working with NICHS. Focus on Family work with the community to help local people so it is good to have a scheme to help the staff too.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.