Meeting Ken Nelson, CEO of the social enterprise LEDCOM, it is hard to believe that just 3 years ago he was learning to walk again after a stroke brought a family day out to an abrupt end.
The 54 year old father of six is a successful businessman. As well as being CEO of LEDCOM, Ken is a member of the boards of Invest NI, Stranmillis University College, Ballymena Academy and the Northern Regional College.
On Saturday 22nd June 2013, he took his two youngest children to the Armed Forces Day in Carrickfergus. He’d had a headache that day but he comes from a long line of migraine sufferers so didn’t think much about it.
Having watched the Red Arrows, they went to get some food. Suddenly Ken lost the power in his left arm. Feeling unsteady on his left side, he got himself to a wall for support. Nathan, then aged 11, ran to a nearby volunteer ambulance for help. Meanwhile Andrew (9) got under his dad’s shoulder to prop him up and slowly walk him to the ambulance.
From there things moved fast. Once at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Ken was moved swiftly from A&E to the acute stroke ward. They told him that he had had a haemorrhagic stroke and so he could not have thrombolysis, which is used on stroke caused by clots not bleeds. There was nothing they could do but monitor him.
Ken thinks back to that first weekend. “At some point after my arrival in hospital, I needed to go to the bathroom, and it was at that point when I suddenly realised how helpless I was. I couldn’t just get out of bed by myself. I was reliant on others. My wife and I are Christians so we prayed to God, not only for my recovery, but also for the ability to accept the “new normal” if this was how my life was going to be.
“Two nights later, I had a seizure. The nurses were not sure I would pull through so called my wife to the hospital at 3am though thankfully by the time she arrived, I had stabilised.”
From that point, Ken’s progress was rapid with some blips along the way. Over his five weeks in the RVH and one week as an inpatient in Musgrave Park followed by a summer of out-patient visits, the physios and OTs worked with him until he was able to walk and his arm had improved significantly. Therapy was rebuilding the pathways in his brain. He also met Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Stroke Family Support who gave him support and information. They were always very positive and that helped him keep positive too.
“I am so grateful for all the dedicated and compassionate medical, nursing and support staff I encountered. It was very moving to experience how they cared for me and other patients”, said Ken.
The medics had discovered that Ken’s stroke had been caused by an AVM (arteriovenous malformation) probably caused by a fistula, which means that there was a small area of blood vessels in his brain where blood could pass directly, at high pressure, from the arteries into the veins. They needed to address this to prevent a relapse. Plans – including an attempted embolization – to treat the AVM with different methods of brain surgery were considered but discounted as the area of brain was close to the area that controls mobility, so an operation could have affected Ken’s ability to walk.
Instead he was sent for stereotactic radiotherapy in Sheffield. The procedure involves mapping the problem in the brain and targeting it so that the beams of radiation meet where the treatment is needed. Just before the procedure was due to commence an angiogram was done -and it was good news! The consultant said the scans now showed that the AVM had almost disappeared and didn’t require treatment. It seemed to have healed itself.
By July 2014, 13 months on from the initial stroke, Ken had returned to work the previous September but his remaining goal was to drive again. The report that the consultant in Sheffield was able to give him meant that he was able to drive again.
Ken still suffers from chronic insomnia and therefore fatigue as a result of the stroke. He thinks he is less patient than before and multi-tasking is more difficult but there have been silver linings too. “I have learnt so much about the kindness of others since the stroke,” Ken explains. “I have experienced so many blessings through the stroke and I am confident that whatever happens in the future, I am in God’s hands.”
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.