I was less than a month from my 60th birthday when I had a stroke on 16th October 2015.
I was at work in Banbridge when I had the stroke. I’m a joiner and I was on top of scaffolding when it happened but thankfully I didn’t fall off it. It wasn’t too high anyway.
Luckily one of the boys knew the symptoms of a stroke. He saw that I couldn’t speak, I was holding my head because of the extreme headache and I couldn’t see properly. So he called an ambulance. I was taken to Daisy Hill where I spent the next two weeks.
When I left hospital I could barely walk into my house. I had to learn to walk again and needed speech therapy. I also had double vision which meant it was difficult to even watch TV.
But when I was in hospital the nurses told me not to look back, only to look forward. That stuck with me. You have to be able to say – I have had a stroke and that’s it. Move on.
What I would say is – stroke is something that happens in your brain and your recovery is something that is controlled by your mind. If you want to be better you can be. And I wanted to be better. So I pushed myself. I have made great strides and I believe that is because I wanted to.
I’m a joiner and if you gave me a piece of wood, I would be the expert on it. I could tell you what could be done with it and how, or I could tell you if there was anything wrong with it. I would be the expert. This is the first time I have ever had a stroke so I am not the expert. But there are other people who are – the doctors, nurses, physios, OTs and the team from NICHS. Whatever they told me to do, I did it and that has really helped.
When I left hospital, the physio gave me exercises to do, even ones that I could do holding on to the sink in the kitchen. I could hardly walk to my front door when I got home but every day I was able to go a bit further with practice.
I couldn’t speak at first either so had speech therapy. I practised singing along to the radio in car. I’m glad no one could hear me as I haven’t a note in my head!
I had double vision when I got home so I put a patch over one eye to watch TV until it was better.
You don’t get everything back all at once. But unless you do it yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. I made good progress and was able to get back driving just after Christmas.
Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke had a number of programmes they offered me so I did them all.
The way they sold PREP (Post Rehabilitation Exercise Programme) to me was that I could try it once and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t ever have to go back. But I did the first round of 6 weeks, then a 2nd round, and then even then a 3rdround as there was a space free.
At first the PREP exercises took me ages to do but I could see the improvement each week. At the start, for example, I could only lift the ball to horizontal but by the end it was above my head.
More people should do PREP – it is a really good, helpful programme. Talking to people also helps. Seeing other people helps. But no one has exactly the same stroke as you, but it helps to hear other people talking about theirs.
Through PREP I also learnt more about healthy eating which is important to reduce the risk of another stroke in the future. I have lost 2 stone now just from eating more healthily. I learnt how to judge the healthiness of foods from the red-amber-green labels. I always look at food labels now.
I have also done Taking Control, the Self Management Programme, which is all about setting goals. As I live on my own that has been really useful. I learnt how to set goals for myself to relearn how to do things. I am right handed and it was my right hand that was affected. Rather than relearn how to do things with my left hand, I was determined to do things with my right hand again, like the ironing and the cleaning. If I don’t do them, no one is going to do it for me.
In fact the only things I don’t do with my right hand now are holding hot mugs of tea and shaving, as my right hand shakes a lot. I tried shaving a couple of times but just ended up with a face covered in blood! I also can’t butter toast in the normal way but I’ve worked out how to do it. I hold the knife in my right hand as normal and the toast in my left and then move the toast under the knife rather than moving the knife over the toast. It works! Sometime you just have to work out how to do things.
Since Taking Control, I have become a volunteer with Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Bessbrook group. I help people off the bus, to the toilet etc. Going to a group like that wouldn’t really be my thing but volunteering and helping others is great and I wanted to give something back.
I have not yet been able to go back to work as I can’t use my tools with my right hand. I have retaught myself to use a drill but can’t yet use a hammer because my hand shakes too much. But I have bought a small hammer and when I am watching TV, I practise hammering the air to try to reteach my hand how to do it.
Since my stroke I have been able to do some DIY around the house which I’m really proud of. I have made a wardrobe and framed a signed Man Utd shirt that my nephew got me.
I go to the gym once a week on the Fit4U programme. I am using dumbbells in the gym to strength my arms which I am hoping will help the shaking. I also got a list of home exercises to do from NICHS for example using tins of beans instead of dumbbells.
Exercise means I can now do more things. My balance was affected at first and walking was difficult. But I am now able to stand for longer and do more things standing up. I can walk around the house okay but outside it can be trickier to walk. My niece got me a walking pole, so that it looks like I am just a hill walker not someone who needs a walking stick. When I go for walks in the country, I carry it but only used it when I need a bit extra steadiness, like if a car is passing. My walking has come on so much that if someone doesn’t know I had a stroke they usually think I am just limping with a bad back.
My attitude is – a stroke is not the end. You could sit and do nothing about it. But that is no benefit to you. You need to get out and do things. And make use of all the programmes and expert advice that is out there for you.
If you want to do something, you will do it. If you don’t want to do it, you won’t be able to. It is under your control.
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.