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Why being more aware of stroke symptoms can save lives

Co Fermanagh grandmother Geraldine Cassidy and Gary Martin from Finaghy both survived a stroke. As the FAST campaign is relaunched they tell Lisa Smyth why it’s important to recognise the warning signs.

Mum-of-five Geraldine Cassidy (60), a retired chef, lives in Enniskillen with her husband of 40 years, 61-year-old Gerard. She had a stroke in July last year. She says:

There were no warning signs prior to my stroke - it came totally out of the blue. Although when I look back now I was having problems with my blood pressure.

I was at home when it happened; sitting in the chair in the living room. We had been to a wedding the day before, and my sister and her husband had called round to chat about it.

I noticed that my speech didn't sound quite right and then my sister asked me whether I had been out for lunch and had a drink because she thought I sounded funny, too.

I got up and went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and saw a slight droop on the right hand side of my mouth.

When I went back into the living room I asked my sister if she thought my face looked funny.

Initially I thought it was hay fever, but then I thought it might be a stroke, so I phoned the doctor.

I could speak, but I really had to concentrate on what I was saying. The doctor said it sounded like I was taking a stroke and told us to get straight to the hospital.

My husband wasn't able to drive as he was in such a panic when he heard the word stroke, so my sister had to take us.

When we arrived the doctor didn't think I sounded too bad, saying he could understand me perfectly. However, one of the nurses on duty knew me and was able to tell the doctor that I wasn't speaking the way I normally would.

A scan confirmed that I had suffered a stroke.

I was very lucky, though, as the clot had gone by itself, so I didn't need thrombolysis, but I was put on medication to stop it happening again.

It's terrifying to be told you're having a stroke - one of the awful things about stroke is the fright it gives your family and children, and the worry afterwards that it might happen again is a big issue.

Although I know how lucky I've been and am so grateful that I knew about the symptoms and went to the hospital when I did.

Our family has been affected by stroke before, so I knew the warning signs from that, but also because of the FAST campaign.

My eldest son, Nicky, had a stroke when he was 32.

When it happened he was going through a really terrible time.

Work was stressful for him and he had just lost one of his children - it was such a traumatic time.

He and his wife Tara had twins and one of them didn't survive - I think it all got too much for him. He hadn't been feeling very well and went to bed and the next morning when he woke up he wasn't able to get up.

His wife rang me and said he wasn't speaking properly either.

I knew from the FAST campaign that it could be a stroke, so I told her to put down the phone, then I rang an ambulance. We live nearby, so I went round but the ambulance was there even before I arrived.

He was taken to hospital where it was confirmed he had a stroke.

But the doctors didn't know when it had happened because he had been sleeping, so he didn't get the thrombolysis to break up the clot.

It was such a difficult time, my poor daughter-in-law was already dealing with losing her baby and looking after another newborn baby and then her husband took a stroke.

It was so traumatic and terrible for me as a mother to watch my son go through something so terrible.

Stroke is a devastating thing to happen to anyone but I am so fortunate to still be here to spend time with my family.

I am a grandmother and there is another one (grandchild) on the way and even though I love my children, I love my grandchildren even more. And I appreciate that I am able to spend time with them.

Before I had a stroke I used to look after some of the grandchildren but now I can't do that as much as I suffer from fatigue.

Fortunately, I didn't suffer paralysis or any of the other problems that you can get after a stroke, whereas Nicky's speech was badly affected.

It could have been a lot worse though, he might never have phoned the doctor and it was only because I rang the ambulance that he ended up in hospital when he did.

We're very lucky to have excellent stroke services locally, it means that family don't have to go too far when you are in hospital.

There are rumours that stroke services are going to be reduced in the area and I think that would be a terrible shame.

It's so important that you recognise the symptoms of stroke and get help as soon as possible.

It has definitely made a difference to my family.

Recognising the symptoms of stroke can make the difference between life and death and how badly affected you will be afterwards."

Gary Martin (44) had a stroke in May last year. He is a senior academic who lives in Finaghy. He says:

My experience of stroke really wasn’t typical at all. The stroke charities are very keen to get the FAST message out there; the fact that your face, arms and speech can be affected and that it’s important to be seen as quickly as possible.

I completely understand why they would want to get across that public awareness message to as many people as possible.

However it’s also important for people to know that all strokes are different and the way they affect us can differ.

In my case, I started to get a headache while I was at work.

All the usual over-the-counter medication didn’t help to ease it.

It was really quite a severe headache and by the evening I was starting to worry a bit and wonder what was going on.

I have a family history of migraine, so I thought that’s what it was, although I had never had a migraine before.

But when the headache didn’t ease I went to A&E where I received wonderful care from the staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

It was a Friday night which can be very busy, but I was still triaged and seen very quickly.

In fact, the medics realised very quickly what might be going on and I was sent for a scan.

I was told at that stage that it might be a stroke or a migraine and was very shocked to hear the possibility that it could be a stroke.

I was quite young and it was something I associated with older people.

Certainly, that is what you might think from awareness campaigns.

At the same time, I was very active. I walked an awful lot and my diet was very good, so I had no reason to think I was at risk of having a stroke.

I was aware of the typical symptoms of stroke, the facial droop, the paralysis, the speech problems, but I wasn’t experiencing anything like that.

It was just a simple headache which I couldn’t shift.

The scan confirmed that I had had a stroke.

The next week was spent in a specialist ward where I was well cared for. Aftercare is also important when you have a stroke, as it can take two years to recover. While I’m trying to do everything I’ve been told to do to aid my recovery, fatigue has been a big issue for me. The exhaustion has been difficult for me to get used to.

Prior to my stroke I was a very active person so it was hard for me knowing that I wasn’t able to do everything that I wanted to do.

Even things like going into town on the train would take so much out of me — and that it difficult to accept.

It is particularly hard, I think, when there are no obvious physical signs that anything is wrong.

You look all right from the outside so people tend to assume that you are well when that isn’t necessarily the case.

My cognitive ability has also been affected, which again, isn’t something that is an obvious physical problem.

I’ve been told that it’s something that will either switch back on or it won’t, there isn’t really anything I can do to help that recover.

Despite that I try to remain positive, my stroke was still quite recent so there is plenty of time for my recovery to continue.

I was very, very lucky.

Now I’m on a lot of medication which is very closely monitored so I know that I’m being looked after. That reassures me that it won’t happen again.

I was fully aware of the FAST campaign, it is a very well promoted message, but in my case it wasn’t relevant at all as my symptom was a headache.

The FAST message is important but people need to know there are other less well known symptoms. I certainly wasn’t aware that a headache could be a sign that you are having a stroke.

It was a big shock to me and also to family and friends when they found out what had happened.

The best advice I would give people is to make sure that they get themselves checked out.

Make sure you know the signs of stroke and if you have any concerns, then make sure you get to the hospital as quickly as possible.

In my case, the only element of the FAST message that related to me was the time aspect. I got to the hospital very quickly.

The sooner you are diagnosed with a stroke, the sooner they can start the treatment and that is crucial when it comes to reducing the long term impact of a stroke.”

For more details contact The Stroke Association, helpline 0303 3033 100 or visit stroke.org.uk

FAST way to identifying symptoms

The Stroke Association is urging people here to be more aware of the early warning signs of stroke, and to share the FAST message to help save more lives.

The FAST Test identifies the three most common symptoms of a stroke and the right action to take:

  • FACE: Can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?
  •  ARM weakness: Can the person raise both arms?
  • SPEECH problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
  • TIME to call 999

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