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How we found our voices again after a devastating stroke

Doctors treat more than 4,000 strokes in Northern Ireland every year and the illness is the leading cause of severe adult disability. Linda Stewart talks to survivors’ Bernie Fox from Moy and Andreas Tage from Lisburn, who were affected by aphasia which impacts on speech.

Bernie Fox (54), from Moy was studying for a nursing degree when she had her stroke. She is married to food technologist Aidan (54) and has one son, Patrick (24). She says:

I have had to weather a lot of storms in a very short space of time. I had worked as a healthcare assistant for many years and was studying for a nursing degree when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery for an aortic valve replacement.

Six months later, when I was undergoing chemotherapy in 2014, I had a stroke.

I was getting ready to go down to Belfast for radiotherapy with my sister when I took the stroke.

I was having a shower when I just felt a weakness in my right side. And I thought to myself - that's strange, it's very like a stroke. I went to get up and I couldn't, so I just sat for a while.

In the meantime, my sister had arrived at the door to pick me up.

I don't know how I got down the stairs, but I managed to and then opened the door and my sister lifted me into the living room and rang for an ambulance.

I thought I was talking to her, but I wasn't. She was saying to me that I had no speech at all. When I went into Craigavon Hospital, I seemed to get worse as the day went on.

Having spent five days in hospital, I then moved into my sister's house for a while after being discharged.

My speech was badly affected, but the stroke specialist and speech therapist were very supportive and my sister's children also helped to bring my recovery on.

They kept saying: 'What's that you're saying' and were constantly making me go over the words.

While I am able to drive again, I suffer from exhaustion a lot and can become tongue tied on certain occasions.

When I am very tired, my husband says: 'I can't understand a word that comes out of your mouth'. It's the way the aphasia affects you. Everything I lift, I seem to drop all the time.

During the day I'm fine, but I prefer not to drive at night - I find it very hard. Stroke can affect you in a lot of ways.

Memory loss is part and parcel of a stroke. You do see something but you can't remember what you were going to say.

My son looked after me when I was ill - he came home for a year. Now he finds that every time he is speaking to me my speech has got better.

I have had to leave work and the stroke has knocked my self-confidence.

I had been training to be a nurse prior to my illness and the stroke left me unable to continue with that.

There is a gym in Armagh which offers 30-minute keep fit sessions, which is as much as I can do. I make sure I do cardiovascular work to keep myself right.

I had put a lot of weight on but I've taken it off again now.

The only advice I could give to other stroke patients is to keep working at it. You have to keep working at it every day.

Some days you'll not be fit to do anything.

There are days when I'll get home and just lie down and sleep, but then I have good days when I try my best to get up and go and that's the only thing you can do. Keep prastising saying words - even if you can't say them properly - it's a great help.

The support I have had from Stroke Recovery co-ordinator Valerie Dale has been invaluable.

When Valerie arrived at my sister's house after the stroke, she was like a breath of fresh air coming in.

Her personality is lovely and she gives me hope and that I think that is important.

Hope is the best thing you have.

She invited me to attend the Stroke Association's Young Women's Stroke Support Group, which helped me find my words again and gave me back my confidence.

I got to meet other young women who have had a stroke and their friendship and support has really aided my recovery.

We all have each other. We have a laugh, because we all forget things but can joke about it.

Their shared experience really helped me, as before I could hardly speak - now I've spoken on Stroke Association videos and have been invited to speak at other events - it's really helped.

The aphasia still affects me to this day, but I've learnt how to cope and how to use it to share my story and to let people know that there is help out there."

Andreas Tage (45), originally from Magdeburg in Germany and now living in Lisburn, works in catering at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. He is married to Anita (53). He says:

I suffered two strokes in rapid succession. I woke up in bed one Monday morning feeling ill. I fell out of bed after losing my balance. My wife and I went to the hospital but they couldn’t really help and sent me home and gave me an appointment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

Then the same afternoon, I was having lunch and I couldn’t find my mouth with my fork. The doctor sent me straight to the Royal and I was in hospital for 17 weeks.

The first eight weeks was spent in the Royal Victoria Hospital where they concentrated on bringing back my speech.

Being from Germany I probably had language problems already, but I had to learn everything again. The first two or three weeks were all to do with speech and the ability to talk again.

The medical staff gave me a mirror to see the expression when I was talking, to see how I could pronounce words. They even gave me homework to do when I was lying in bed at night.

Mind you, the doctor did say that being from Germany may have helped me — because I was bilingual, my brain was more active than someone who spoke only one language. But when the stroke hit, it wiped everything out — I had to go back to point zero.

If I hadn’t got the speech back, the implications are unbelievable — I couldn’t make phone calls and I couldn’t communicate with my family back in Germany.

After leaving hospital, I was treated for nine weeks at the Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit in Musgrave Park Hospital where I concentrated on regaining my physical functions.

I’ve still lost the use of my arm, but I am able to walk a short distance with the help of a cane and a leg splint.

Thankfully I’m able to drive again, which is a big help. It means I can now explore the option of going back to work.

Life is quite slow now — there are certain things I can do and can’t do. I accept that now. My wife is the best — she helps me so much.

I can’t tie my shoelaces. I can’t cut my own fingernails. She has to do everything now — it’s the small things you don’t think about. Getting dressed takes forever.

After I was discharged from hospital in June I began volunteering with the Stroke Association to see what life returning to work would be like.

I’ve come a long way from there. I can have a conversation on the phone.

I will never forget what it was like losing my speech in the aftermath of the stroke — it was horrendous. The fear that you’d not be able to communicate with your loved ones is something you just don’t think about when you’re 45.”

Symptoms of stroke

  • sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body.
  • difficulty finding words.
  • sudden blurred vision or loss of sight.
  • sudden confusion, dizziness or unsteadiness.
  • a sudden, severe headache.

During November and December the Stroke Association’s Lost for Words campaign aims to raise awareness of stroke and the impact of communication disability. Visit Stroke Association at stroke.org.uk. For details on the Stroke Association’s Speech and Language programme, tel: 028 9050 8020 or ni@stroke.org.uk

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