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'Humberto could not cope when a relative started taking drugs... he bottled up his fears and I think the stress caused his strokes'

Belfast grandmother Linda Taveres' husband suffered two strokes due to a worrying family problem. Now she tells Stephanie Bell how a Northern Ireland Chest, Heart Stroke programme has helped them deal with their anxiety.

With stress now affecting half of the working population in Northern Ireland, a grandmother has spoken about the threat to our health after her husband suffered two stress-related strokes.

Linda Tavares (64) has no doubt that stress over worry about a relative getting involved with drugs caused her husband Humberto (63) to suffer two strokes just before Christmas two years ago.

The Belfast couple, who are both retired, came through a terrible trauma trying to cope with the situation involving a family member.

Linda, a retired customs officer who has a grown-up daughter and stepson, found different ways of channelling her worry and fears, but her husband Humberto, who worked as a plasterer, found it more difficult to cope. And on Christmas Eve 2014 he woke up with a numb feeling down his left side.

An MRI scan later revealed he had suffered two strokes.

Linda tells of the impact on both their lives following the Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke charity's campaign Give Stress a Rest.

The charity has published results of a local survey which reveals that half of working age adults here are stressed out, with work and finances being the biggest causes of worry.

Stress is something which Linda and her husband have learnt the hard way to control and she is urging others to get a handle on life's pressures.

She recalls: "We were going through a terrible time with our relative and both of us were under immense stress.

"They got themselves into all sorts of drugs and there was no help available to us and we didn't know where to turn.

"It started with cannabis and then escalated. Over a two year period, it got out of control and they were living with us at the time.

"The pressure was unbearable. It caused a lot of stress between us, too. We argued over what was the best way to proceed. I spent time doing research on the computer and writing letters, which gave me a way of expressing my worry, but my husband bottled it all up and I think that's what led to the strokes."

When Humberto, who is originally from Portugal, woke with numbness down his side, at first he and Linda thought it was the way he had been lying during the night.

They headed off as usual to do some Christmas grocery shopping, but eventually had to abandon their trolley as Humberto continued to feel unwell.

They went to their GP surgery where they were told to go straight to A&E.

Linda explains: "The A&E doctor immediately suspected a stroke - which came as a complete shock to us - because Humberto's face hadn't fallen on one side and he could raise both his arms.

"We had actually checked for these signs. An MRI scan showed that Humberto had, in actual fact, had two strokes.

"In hindsight he had been having mini strokes but didn't realise at the time, as the numbness would have passed by fairly quickly. But isn't hindsight 20/20 vision."

Humberto was discharged on Christmas Eve with information about the need to eat healthily, exercise and relax, but the couple said they were on their own.

While Humberto had relatively few physical after-effects, Linda said he was extremely emotional and fatigued.

She says: "We could be watching TV and the next thing he would be crying and not really know why.

"He's a strong man and when I tried to comfort him it would make it worse.

"Then not knowing how I could help upset me and it became a vicious circle. It felt like we were dragging each other down."

A neighbour suggested contacting NI Chest Heart & Stroke for support.

The charity arranged for a family support co-ordinator to visit them at home, to tell them what services were available.

The couple had no idea what to expect and Linda says they have been amazed by the difference it has made to their lives: "It was like a light turning on.

"We learned that NICHS had experience in helping people live life after stroke and described some of the services on offer, including the Taking Control Programme. We were both actually quite sceptical about how it could help. I imagined being lectured about why we shouldn't have smoked and being told what we should and shouldn't be doing. Humberto couldn't envisage how talking within a group would help.

"But the co-ordinator was so encouraging that we decided to give it a try, as we had nothing to lose and we didn't have to go back if it wasn't for us. We went that first day and haven't looked back.

"My initial worries about being lectured to couldn't have been further from the truth. It is all about learning what is right for yourself and taking control of your life back. The best word I can use to describe the programme is positivity."

Initially Linda went along to the programme as Humberto's carer, and unexpectedly she too found support for health issues that were unrelated to stroke.

She says: "I have asthma and diabetes and I got so much out of the programme for myself.

"The group bonded so quickly, even in that first week. We were able to share a little bit of our stories with each other, in our own words. And while the stories were different, there were lots of similarities.

"Lots of people were feeling a little bit lost, trying to adjust to the 'health bomb' that had gone off in their lives and trying to make sense of the future.

"Sometimes people got a little bit emotional, but we were all able to comfort each other and, even though there were times it was emotional, there was no negativity.

"That was the theme throughout, together with the programme leaders, we listened to each other, inspired each other and helped each other."

The fact there was a good mix of men and women on the programme also helped the couple to feel more feel comfortable talking and sharing their experiences.

Thanks to the support, Linda and Humberto learned to set themselves weekly goals and, more importantly, find new ways to cope with stress.

Ultimately during the six-week programme they discovered a new way of living, which has enabled them to enjoy a more relaxed approach to life.

Linda says: "The six weeks were a bit of a slow awakening which we needed in order to look at our lives in a different way, that there were some things in our lives which were controlling us and we needed to take control of them.

"We also needed to learn to change the way we went about doing some things, for example to break some tasks into smaller steps. That not everything has to be done at once.

"We have learned that by pacing ourselves, sometimes even more gets done in reality.

"We are both so thankful to have come into contact with NICHS. Sometimes I wonder just where we would be now if we hadn't. I would definitely encourage people to make contact.

"A lot of people have said to me, 'sure, why would I want to go and listen to a lot of people talking', but I explain that it is much more than that. It's really not about wallowing in your own situation, it's about seeing things in a different way and learning skills that will help long into the future, even when the programme is over.

"It is so important if people are stressed to get help and support. Stress affects everything - your ability to eat and sleep and that becomes a vicious circle."

The new research carried out by NICHS revealed that two fifths of people in Northern Ireland regularly feel stressed-out, with almost half of 35 to 64-year-olds reporting "considerable levels of stress on a regular basis".

Across all age groups, 39% of us regularly feel high levels of stress, with women suffering more than men - 45% of females to 34% of males.

Financial worries and work are the two biggest culprits when it comes to our stress levels.

Launching its Give Stress a Rest campaign, Fidelma Carter, Public Health director from NICHS, said: "Whilst we will all experience stress in our lives at some point, it's worrying that so many of us are regularly feeling significantly stressed.

What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted. Most strokes occur when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries which carry blood to the brain. If brain cells lose their supply of oxygen from the blood, they will be damaged or will die.

The symptoms of a stroke depend on the part of the brain affected and the extent of the damage, so no two strokes are the same and recovery is different from person to person.

The symptoms of a stroke usually come on suddenly and are described by the letters F.A.S.T:

  • Facial weakness: Can the person smile? Has his/her mouth or eye drooped?
  • Arm weakness: Can the person raise both arms? Is one arm weak?
  • Speech problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
  • Time to call 999: If the person has failed any of these tests, call 999 immediately.

Other symptoms include:

  • Problems with balance and co-ordination
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sudden blurred vision or loss of sight
  • Severe headache
  • The ‘T’ in F.A.S.T is very important, as the longer the affected part of the brain is without blood, the greater the residual damage will be.

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