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Three women on suffering a stroke in their 20s

Published 18/09/2015

Inspiring women: from left, Stacey Baird, Cheryl Corbett, Valerie Dale and Lynda Wright
Inspiring women: from left, Stacey Baird, Cheryl Corbett, Valerie Dale and Lynda Wright
Stacey Baird
Cheryl Corbett
Lynda Wright
Valerie Dale

It's a condition associated with older people, but a new report reveals that a surprising number of younger women suffer strokes too. Ahead of a charity fashion show in Lurgan tonight, three women tell Una Brankin about falling ill and their battle back to health.

According to the latest health statistics, three times more women will die from stroke than from breast cancer - and those affected are getting younger, with the average age falling from 68 to just 41.

Ahead of a fundraising fashion show that will take place in Lurgan town hall, Co Armagh, tonight, we caught up with four women from Young Women's Stroke Support Group - the UK's only under-55 female support group who will be taking to the catwalk to raise awareness of the risk at any age - and to show there's life after stroke.

'I was afraid as I didn't know what was happening to me'

Stacey Baird (25) works as a community carer in Armagh. She has two children, Poppie (4) and baby Heidi, who was born against the odds for Stacey, five weeks ago. Stacey suffered a stroke on New Year's Day 2014, at 24. She says:

One night I woke up sweating and I knew in my heart that I'd had a stroke, as my right side felt numb and I couldn't swallow. I went to Craigavon hospital and they diagnosed a stroke right away.

At the time, I was in a cold sweat, I was convinced my face had drooped. I got up and asked my dad if it was, but he said it was fine. It did look symmetrical in the mirror but I was convinced that it had dropped underneath my skin.

I told dad I believed I was having a stroke, but he thought I was over-reacting, especially at my age - I was too young. As a community carer though, I meet people who have had strokes quite often, so I know what happens to them. Anyway, mum took me to accident and emergency, and I started to lose my ability to swallow. I couldn't even sip a glass of water, yet my blood pressure was fine.

They kept me in overnight and I had an MRI scan the next day, which confirmed a stroke. I was kept in 10 days and had to have all my fluids thickened, as I couldn't swallow them.

I had been in good health, but I had a bit of a scare in the car a few weeks beforehand. I had to swerve the car and there was a slight impact. Despite this, my neck felt funny and I had headaches. The doctor put it down to whiplash and stress, and the hospital couldn't confirm it had caused the stroke.

I was extremely anxious and full of fear for the future, and my family were in a state of shock because I was so young. But they have been a great support.

It was so unexpected - I couldn't believe I'd had a stroke at 24. I do have some facial drooping, although it's only noticeable at the end of the day, when I'm tired. I have to use a crutch or a walking stick, but I can manage them and the baby okay all at once.

The doctor advised me not to get pregnant due to the risk of another stroke, but I wanted a sister or brother for my four-year-old, so they switched my medication from warfarin to aspirin, which I'm still on.

My confidence, self-esteem and memory have been affected, but I'm getting help and encouragement from the women in the support group.

I'm modelling on the red carpet tonight in Lurgan. I'm anxious about it, but I want to get the message across which is that with the right peer support women can conquer stroke."

‘I was afraid as I didn’t know what was happening to me’

Cheryl Corbett (35) lives outside Dromore with her husband Neil and their two-year-old son Alfie. She suffered a stroke at 25, while working as a PA in Belfast, in 2005. She says:

I was preparing for a work meeting but was felt clumsy and uncoordinated, then I took a horrendous pain in my head. I had suffered bad migraines previously, but this pain was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had no idea what was happening and went home.

When I got home the pain was worse and I had numbness down my right side. I was being violently sick and couldn't co-ordinate my right side. My mum took me to the out-of-hours doctor, who admitted me to the nearest hospital, but I was discharged the next day.

I was afraid as I didn't know what was happening to me.

My family eventually got a private appointment for me at Hillsborough clinic for an MRI scan. Only then did I learn that I had suffered a stroke.

Then I was able to get all the care and support I needed at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

I also attended the regional brain injury unit at Musgrave Park Hospital every day for intensive therapy.

Now, I still have reduced strength and feeling down my right side - my right leg is the worst. There is no feeling in my right foot and I need steroid injections for pain and botulinum injections to prevent spasms. I have some memory loss and aphasia. While I haven't lost my speech, thankfully - there are times when it is hard to get words out.

Simple things which we all take for granted - like reading a magazine or writing something down - can be difficult.

Despite this, I am very thankful that I am the way I am.

I thought strokes only happened to old people - not a 25-year-old.

It was a relief, though, to finally know what was wrong with me, and I was going to do everything I could to get better.

Like most young women, I always wanted to settle down one day, get married and hopefully have a family. I thought that would never happen - who would want me? That was before I met my husband, Neil.

When we first, I knew I had to tell Neil about my stroke. His reaction surprised me; he just said "what of it".

We got married on December, 31, 2008, and I wanted to walk down the aisle without my walking stick and the calliper. So, having measured the length of the aisle in the church, it became my daily physio practice. On my wedding day, though I still had my calliper on, I walked down the aisle with both my mum and dad by my side. It was such a brilliant day.

Like any married couple, we talked about having a family, although I had been warned it was risky - due to high chance of taking another stroke. Despite other medical advice, my stroke consultant supported my decision.

I had always wanted a family and was determined to have one.

When I realised I was pregnant - we couldn't have been happier.

My pregnancy was classed as high risk and, while there were difficult moments, as long as the baby was born healthy, I didn't care about anything else.

Alfie Alexander was born on July 11, 2013. He is just over two years of age and is my world.

I still take a lot of medication which is made up at my pharmacy, as it is hard for me to manage. But if that's what keeps me well today, it's a small price to pay.

A stroke can happen to anyone - even an unborn baby in the womb.

I may not be who I was at 25, but if I had not taken my stroke, who knows, I may not have met Neil and had our precious little Alfie.

As I met my husband and got married after my stroke, I will be wearing a wedding dress at tonight's show. If this event encourages one person to not give up and carry on after their stroke, it will be worth it."

'I was so tired ... my brain was dancing round my head, trying to remember what I had forgotten'

Lynda Wright (50) lives in Armagh with her son Aaron (18). A divorcee, Lynda has her own driving instructing business. She completed a 5km run just before her stroke at 48. She says: 

On November 8, 2013, a car ran into the back of me on a driving lesson. I hurt my neck and the following day, I took an almighty headache. My head felt as if it would explode, I felt sick and couldn't see properly.

I got an out-of-hours appointment, and went in with a very sore head, neck and arm and high blood pressure. The doctor was worried and gave me relaxant, but ruled out a trip to the hospital and sent me home with tablets.

I was tired and struggled to work more than a couple of hours at a time. I went back to the doctor and asked if I had a stroke, as I couldn't move my arm and had an unmerciful headache. She said it was possible but unlikely, as my blood pressure was normal. By Christmas, I still didn't have a diagnosis and I was an emotional wreck and exhausted. I couldn't go out to the bin without having to lie down on the kitchen floor. I was so tired. My brain was dancing round my head, trying to remember what I forgotten. My savings were paying the bills and starting to run very low - I needed to work, but knew it wasn't safe. While at a cousin's house on Christmas Day, I cried the whole time uncontrollably.

On my 49th birthday, I rang my doctor and told him I thought I was dying. I was so wobbly and bleeding heavily, from what was thought to be a menopausal issue. An ambulance took me to hospital, where a brain scan revealed a blood clot from a stroke. I cried - I knew it. The doctor gave me a drink to dissolve it and I was admitted to the stroke ward. I was relieved to finally know what had happened.

The doctors at the hospital said a torn artery in my neck had probably caused the stroke. I was given anti-depressants and muscle relaxants for the pain in my arm and neck, and to help me sleep, but still I felt as though I was drowning. I was prescribed physio for my arm and neck, but was still suffering. How would I pay my bills and mortgage? I honestly thought I would be better off dead.

Despite my despair then, I now feel like a different woman after receiving treatment and counselling - I am loving life again and having fun. I still get extremely tired and am seriously forgetful, but I'm back at work.

It's almost two years since I had a stroke. I have turned 50 and enjoyed last year's Christmas lunch - there was no crying over my dinner."

'Women can feel they have lost their role in society, that there is no need for them'

Valerie Dale was only eight years old when her mother Sally suffered her first stroke, and a teenager when she was struck down again. The 41-year-old mother-of-two from Moira now works as a nurse for the Stroke Association and recently set up the Craigavon-based Young Women's Stroke Support Group. She says:

Stroke had a devastating effect on my mother's life, and our family's. Her second, at 37, left her paralysed and unable to communicate. There was a family history - her father, two sisters and a brother all had them, but mum was the youngest.

Her first stroke, at 29, was horrific. She lost consciousness and we were all brought to say goodbye to her; she was really ill. The eldest in the family was only 11 and I was eight. She recovered well, but had the second one eight years later. I was 16 and spent the next 10 years looking after her. She never gave up hope and was able to walk again after 18 months, but she couldn't speak to us. She tried, right until she died when she was 47.

I remember she was trying to tell us something on her death-bed in the hospital, but we couldn't work out what it was. A stroke leaves its calling card physically, psychologically and emotionally. I tell the ladies straight: the aftermath can be devastating and can ruin lives, but in many situations, there's hope. Whatever age you are, you can get your life back.

Lifestyle choices, hormones, obesity and high blood pressure are all risk factors. It's understood that menopausal women are more at risk of developing a clot - a stroke involves a clot or a bleed. You need to look after your body, especially after the age of 50, and see your GP for regular health checks.

Our group meets once a week in Craigavon and we hold regular events to raise awareness.

I can empathise with these women. They have the same steely grit and determination my mother had. Women can feel they have lost their role in society after a stroke; that society has no longer a need for them, even though they're still young. They feel a lack of peer support - there are groups for everything except those affected by stroke. The wider public doesn't know what it's like to walk in their shoes, and don't realise that the young can also get a stroke.

Mum's stroke wasn't the end of it in our family. My father Harold (64) had one just over a year ago, but it didn't affect him too badly. So, there is life after a stroke.

There are 25 women from the group modelling tonight, the youngest being 16. She had a stroke when she was only eight - it's empowering for them to take part; I'm so proud of all of them."

Tickets to tomorrow night's fashion show in aid of the Young Women's Stroke Support Group can be bought on the door at Lurgan Town Hall. The group can be contacted through Valerie, tel: 07947 273013/07701 339169 and by email valerie@stroke.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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