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How we learned to live with the devastating aftermath of stroke

It’s not just older people who are at risk of a stroke. Joanne Sweeney talks to three young adults, all from Northern Ireland, who are all recovering from this life-changing event

Published 28/06/2016

Terrifying ordeal: Bo Dumigan with her daughter Harley
Terrifying ordeal: Bo Dumigan with her daughter Harley
Life changing: Leanne and Daniel McGeown
Lisa Lecky with her partner Connor and their two children, Conor and Orla
Family support: Suzanne McCullough with daughter Cindy

Suffering a stroke is devastating at any age and, for those who survive an attack, life can be very different. While stroke is generally perceived as something that only happens to older people, it is increasingly affecting more people under the age of 40 here.

Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year, PSNI officer Clodagh Dunlop, who suffered a stroke when she was just 35, is one of a number of younger people who have fought back from the indiscriminate condition.

We speak to the mother of a three-year-old girl, a young father and two young mums, all of whom are being supported by Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association, who explain how stroke affected their lives.

‘My little girl was a dead weight and the left side of her face had fallen’

Harley Cochrane (3) from Carrickfergus suffered a stroke when she was two after being ill with chickenpox. Her mum, Bo Dumigan (24), who lives with Harley's dad Tommy Cochrane, tells her story. She says:

I'll never forget that day when I was out with Harley and my mum for a walk in August, 2015. We were bringing Harley home from a birthday party early as she had suffered a bout of chickenpox a month before. All of a sudden she fell down and when I picked her up she was a dead weight and I noticed the left side of her face had fallen.

She was trying to speak to me but couldn't. I just panicked and ran around screaming for help.

Thankfully, a passer-by took us to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and it was that act of kindness which saved Harley's life.

No one else here has had a stroke at this age, so it was a first for the medical team, who were at a loss as to how to treat her because she was so young.

At the hospital, Harley slipped in and out of consciousness and it was really hard to watch her looking so lifeless.

We were told that she had taken a stroke, probably due to a clot caused by the chickenpox, although they were not 100% sure, and this had worked its way into her brain.

She lost all movement down her left side and couldn't speak at a time when she should have been learning new words.

By week five, though, she was able to toddle around holding her daddy's hand for support.

Thankfully, she can speak well now and is able to walk, but still has very limited movement in her left hand. Harley calls her left hand "her helping hand" and says it is starting to wake up from a big sleep.

Now she has to wear a splint on her leg and we have a special pram for long walks. She's a great child and very happy but she can get very frustrated with her lack of mobility.

Sometimes when we are out I can see the judgemental stares from others, who don't understand she's had a stroke. They assume she is having a tantrum when she gets fed up with not having as much movement as she should. They just don't know what she's been through. She still sees the psychiatrist and the physiotherapist to deal with the impact of the stroke. They are very hopeful that she will make a full recovery eventually, as her body is still developing and has youth on her side.

Our lives were turned upside down when Harley suffered a stroke and we are still dealing with it.

Now, we don't think it would be fair to have another child as Harley still needs so much of our attention and support, not just now but for years to come.

I would urge parents to be very vigilant around their children if they have had chickenpox. Currently there is no policy to vaccinate children against chickenpox and I think that's so wrong."

‘We’d to sell our business and life has been hard’

Daniel McGeown, a father-of-three to Katie (7), Danny (4) and Chloe (5 months), from Armagh, was just 37 when he was put into an induced coma after he suffered a stroke following a gym session in May, 2014. His wife Leanne (32) tells the story. She says:

Daniel and I were running a hot food shop and life was good for us and our two children before he took ill. He was a fit and healthy man and exercised regularly at our home gym. But one evening after he had been working out, he came out to me in the living room and, literally, couldn’t get a breath or speak.

His tongue had swollen in his mouth and he couldn’t say anything.

I knew something was seriously wrong at this stage, as he was unable to hold a cup to take a drink.

Daniel’s sister, who is a cardiac nurse, came over and called an ambulance. While we weren’t panicking, once he was in the ambulance he began to lose control of his right side.

When he got to casualty it emerged he was having a major bleed in his brain. The doctors put him into an induced coma at Craigavon Hospital and, if not for that, Daniel might not be here today.

He was in hospital for weeks before being admitted to the Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit (RABIU).

I think the intense therapy he received there every day for four days a week really helped his recovery.

Daniel’s speech is still a bit of a problem for him and he hasn’t got any strength or movement back in his right arm. Meanwhile, the tiredness and fatigue are still issues for him and he has good days and bad days.

Now, we are just living day-to-day and while we have our three children to bring up, life is not as demanding as it was now that Daniel doesn’t have as many medical appointments.

The stroke not only changed Daniel’s life, but mine, too. We had to sell our business and financially things have been very difficult for us.

Our third child Chloe is our miracle baby and a symbol of our love together and hope that there can be life after stroke.

People are totally dumbfounded that Daniel had a stroke at 37. He used to enjoy playing football, but now that’s all finished. He would love to work again but, for now, his recovery and getting back to health is the priority.”

‘I’ve had to learn to change nappies with just one hand’

Lisa Lecky (38), who lives in Belfast with partner Connor and their children Conor (2) and nine-month-old Orla, was pregnant with her second child when she suffered a stroke following surgery for a brain aneurysm. She says:

I was a fit and healthy person before I suffered a stroke. I loved yoga and ran most days. I was eight weeks pregnant with my daughter Orla when I collapsed while out jogging on March 4, 2015.

While I can’t remember it, I was told later that I needed surgery to stop the bleeding in my brain after being hospitalised.

Then two days later there was more surgery to remove part of my skull to relieve the swelling.

In between these two operations I had a stroke.

I was in the brain injury unit RABIU at Musgrave Hospital for five months of my pregnancy, getting out for just two weeks before returning to hospital for a planned C-section.

Aside from recovering from two major operations on my brain, I also had to cope with being pregnant.

I was worried sick about the impact of the trauma and general anaesthetic on the baby.

But thank God, there wasn’t anything wrong. She was absolutely perfect. Being pregnant also hindered my ability to recover from the stroke as I couldn’t do some of the exercises.

The process which would have enabled me to get better quicker was more complicated that usual.

I was still using a wheelchair when my partner, Connor, and I moved in with my parents afterwards for support.

Even now, I don’t know if I will ever be able to return to my old job as an administrator.

I also had to rebuild my relationship with my son Conor, as I had missed half of his wee life.

Since then, though, I’ve learnt how to change nappies with one hand, as I’ve lost the use of my left arm.

While I rely on the wheelchair most of the time, now,  I can potter about the house with the help of a walking stick.

The doctors are hopeful I will get my mobility back, but not the movement in my arm. Despite it all, I am just so thankful to the medical staff for being alive.

My life has changed; one minute I was a fit, healthy and independent mother — now I am dependent on others for help.

While it was a horrible time, I am on the other side of it now. As long as my children are okay, I will cope.”

‘I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to cope with Cindy’

Suzanne McCullough, from Bangor, was on life support for five days after she suffered a stroke aged 37 in May 2013. She is a single mum to Cindy (1) and has three other children with her ex-husband. She says:

One day I felt extremely unwell, so I went to the hospital where I was kept overnight for tests as it was unclear how ill I was. Initially, scans showed I had a tumour which the doctors believed was inoperable.

While I was in hospital I fell off the bed and ended up on life support for five days, none of which I can recall.

A week after I returned home from hospital, the doctors called to say I had suffered a stroke.

My speech was badly affected and I lost the power down the right side of my body. Now, I feel completely dependent on others and it has turned my life upside down.

I needed a lot of speech therapy afterwards and while my speech has gradually returned, I still have difficulties with words which is embarrassing.

Thanks to medical treatment, my health improved to the point where I met a new partner — now my ex — and have a one-year-old baby girl, Cindy. I didn’t have any health complications during my pregnancy other than a limp which got worse towards the birth.

I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to cope with Cindy because of my limited movement.

When she was born, though, it just seemed natural for me to want to hold her.

Now she’s starting to run around and it is hard to keep up with her.

However, a daily exercise regime which was recommended for me by a physio is helping my movement improve.

Having previously been right-handed I now write with my left and for feeding Cindy, too.

While I don’t tell people that I’ve had a stroke, some notice my speech and lack of movement. Now, though, my priority is to create as normal a life as possible for Cindy and I. I still need a lot of help, but fortunately, I have my mum, sisters, friends and the local support group.”

NI Chest Heart & Stroke runs stroke support groups across Northern Ireland. For more information on YoungStroke group support visit ww.nichs.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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