Successful businessman, Ronan Sweeney, thought he would have to sell his business following a stroke when he was 36 years old. Now almost 10 years later, the business has expanded and Ronan and his wife Jennie have announced a partnership with local charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke.
Ronan recalls the night he had the stroke at the start of December 2008. “I had a very severe bout of flu and woke in the night with a peculiar feeling. The only way to describe it would be ‘total blackness’. I remember standing in the middle of the bedroom feeling totally confused. I went back to bed to try to sleep it off but when I woke in the morning the peculiar feeling persisted and the right side of my vision was totally gone.”
When Ronan went to the doctor a few days later his vision was still affected, leading his GP to diagnose a migraine. Ronan was not convinced. His memory was badly affected, he could not follow conversations and he was suffering from lack of proprioception, meaning he was not aware of where his feet were positioned. He returned to the GP surgery twice more until a locum doctor suggested it may be a stroke. An MRI confirmed that Ronan had suffered a stroke in the thalamic area of his brain due to a blockage in his vertebral arteries.
“It was a huge shock,” recalls Ronan. “Mentally it was very difficult to deal with. I felt angry, as if I had been punished unfairly. The fact that the doctors could not pinpoint what had caused the clot, despite numerous tests, added to my sense of injustice. I felt bitter and resentful but overall I felt a deep sense of embarrassment. I did not allow my wife Jennie to tell anyone what had happened. I now realise how difficult this must have been for her. I had Jennie to talk to. She was my therapist, if you like. But she had no one to talk to as I was too embarrassed to admit to having a stroke.”
Ronan’s stroke left him intensely tired. He was also unable to follow conversations and discussions, crucial in business meetings. “I couldn’t make words into sentences. I couldn’t conduct a meeting at all. It must have been obvious but either I covered very well or the people I was meeting with were too polite to comment. I was also intensely tired. I spent months lying on the sofa sleeping or just watching TV. It is hard to describe what the fatigue feels like. It is not simply feeling tired.
“In the weeks after the stroke, I thought I would have to sell the business, but Jennie picked up many of my commitments, even though we had three children under four and an older son. The other director in the business also never complained about having to take on some of my role. I was back at work within a few weeks but it was many months before I was back on top of my game. By November 2009, 11 months after the stroke, I had recovered enough to a buy a second pub. It took a lot of mental strength but psychologically it was important to me.
“One unexpected benefit of the stroke has been an improved work life balance. Previously I had been working an 80-90 hour week. Running a business is still stressful but I now take more time off. My family and my home are my haven.”
Ronan has some permanent effects of the stroke. He describes his medium term memory as ‘shocking’ and some fatigue remains. His left arm is weak and has a tremor. He is left handed but hasn’t the strength to open jars with his left hand. His balance is not great. “I can’t stand on one leg very well,” he says, “but at least I can just about stay upright on my bike. Cycling is one of my passions and I am very thankful I am still able to do that.
“I want to use what has happened to me to help others. Looking back, Jennie and I could both have benefited from the support Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke gives stroke survivors. That is why I am supporting them, to raise money to help others. I also want to tell other stroke survivors that yes, it is a tough, depressing time after stroke. Your world is turned upside down. But time does help. Your body and brain can recover to a greater or lesser extent. But emotionally, time is a great healer. My embarrassment and self-pity has now passed. I have my life back.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.