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'I thought only older people could have a stroke, but I was 45, active and fit when I suffered one'

With more than 35,000 survivors here needing support, the Stroke Association is calling on people to back its Give a Hand campaign starting on Saturday. Two women, who suffered an attack, describe the challenges they have faced since. Lisa Smyth reports.

Helen Graham (46) from  Hamiltonsbawn, Co Armagh, is  married to 48-year-old Stewart and is mum of Ryan (17), Laura (15), Conor (13) and Alex (11). She had a stroke when she was 45. She says:

Hindsight and a little knowledge are wonderful things. In the week prior to my stroke I had a really severe headache like I've never had in my life before or since. I phoned the doctor who told me to come in immediately. She was really thorough in checking me over.

There was no history of stroke, it wasn't on my mind or hers, so I returned to work with a promise to come back within 24-hours if symptoms didn't improve.

The following evening, Friday, I was exceedingly dizzy but I just put it down to tiredness and a busy week at work.

By mid-afternoon the dizziness had got to the point that I thought I would collapse, and so spent the rest of the day on the couch.

That same evening I had just gone up to bed when stroke struck - it happened that quickly.

I could feel my right leg and then arm become totally frozen, unable to move and totally devoid of feeling.

I was aware of my face drooping and tried to call for my husband. I was trying to talk to him but it was as if I'd been to the dentist and my entire mouth was completely numb. I knew something was wrong but couldn't verbalise it.

Stewart dialled 999 and a paramedic seemed to be in the room with me in minutes.

My last few memories are of being carried downstairs on a stretcher, seeing one of my youngest watching through the bannisters, very distressed.

Apparently, on arrival at Craigavon Hospital, I was able to move my arms again.

Initially the doctors thought I had a migraine because I was so responsive.

By Monday, I recall that my legs were so heavy that they felt as if they were filled with concrete. While I was able to walk it was such an effort.

I had also lost my upper peripheral vision which further added to my distress.

Another scan confirmed that I'd had a stroke.

That was when the tears started - and they went on for months.

My time in hospital was an emotional blur. It was like a bereavement, the shock and trauma.

Every day I would pull the curtain around and just cry, even sometimes going into the shower room for privacy.

The staff were amazing - one of the nurses even came in and sat with me on the floor in the shower room to try and comfort me.

It was hard for everyone -one of our youngest boys was particularly upset and wouldn't come near me for quite a while in the hospital.

Back at home, I found I could do so little and I really struggled with that.

Pre-stroke I was very fit and active and we would always have been out doing things as a family at the weekend - going for walks, out on the bikes - but I wasn't able to do anything like that.

It was crushing to be so physically and mentally exhausted.

Stewart would bring me down the stairs in the morning and I would stay on the couch and he would take me back up in the evening.

In the afternoons I would try and help the kids with their homework but my memory was dysfunctional - although I know the answer to a question I couldn't access it.

Fatigue and vision impairment accentuated the difficulties.

Ten months on I still have a daily nap, the fatigue is chronic. If I know something is coming up I try and plan for it and get some rest but even that isn't always effective.

No-one in my family has had a stroke. I'd never heard of it happening to anyone so young and ignorantly thought it was only something that happened to older people.

I was really worried the stroke had happened because of a genetic problem and I could have passed it on to our children, but thankfully that was ruled out.

In hindsight, I have learned that severe headache and dizziness are common indicators of stroke, especially for women, as well as the more commonly publicised ones in the FAST campaign.

The impact of stroke is not just physical, but mental and emotional.

But it's much more than just the physical effects of a stroke - it has been, and still is, an emotional rollercoaster.

I talk about my long dark tunnel, I just couldn't see where I was going in life. I think it took me three or four months to even say, 'I've had a stroke'.

Counselling is still ongoing. There are days where I just cry, which is hard for my husband and family, but it is an emotional release.

Thankfully good days are beginning to outnumber the bad ones.

Tragically however, six months after my stroke, one of my closest friends had a stroke and died.

She had been with me the Saturday before as my family were hosting a fundraising coffee morning for the Stroke Association Northern Ireland.

I still miss her.

However, I'm an optimist and a fighter.

I have regained full mobility and my stamina is slowly improving.

I am home every day now for my children and it has also made my marriage stronger.

Stewart and I met when I was 18, have been married for 23 years and together for five years before that.

But we definitely make more time for each other now.

Having had a stroke has made my faith stronger and I am a firm believer that somehow this has happened for a reason, although I don't know what God's plans are for me yet.

Having a stroke, like any other life threatening illness or disability, makes you realise who and what is important in life."

‘The diagnosis was a real shock ... I was just 23’

Stacey Hutton (26) lives in Armagh with her husband Philip (30) and their daughters, Poppie (5) and 13-month-old Heidi. She had a stroke when she was 23.  She says:

I had my stroke on January 1, 2014. The November before I had been in a near miss car crash — I had to swerve to avoid a car, but it was just a sudden movement and I didn’t really think much about it at the time. But as time went on I got a sore neck and the pain just got worse, so I went along to the doctor but they put it down to whiplash.

I didn’t really feel like going out and celebrating New Year’s Eve so I had gone to my mum’s, but I just wasn’t myself and was home and in bed by 12.30am.

I woke up at 4.20pm because I was sweating.

My job at the time was a community carer, so I was aware of the symptoms of stroke and I just felt like I had one.

I could feel my face drooping on one side, although you couldn’t see it.

I could still move my arms, I could raise them up, but my legs had pins and needles in them which went away.

I woke Philip and told him I thought I had a stroke but he said it must be something else and we rang the out of hours doctor.

In the end my mum came and took me to A&E.

By the time we arrived I could barely walk and was getting weaker.

I felt really embarrassed because everyone was looking at me and I felt like they were thinking, ‘look at that young girl so drunk she can barely walk’.

They took blood and I lay there for five hours in majors before they moved me.

I was being sick by this stage and was given anti-sickness tablets, but they just made me worse.

All I can remember is I really wanted a drink but my swallow had gone.

When I arrived in the ward they did a swallow test and confirmed it had been affected, so I wasn’t allowed a drink and had to go on pureed food.

I stayed on that for about four or five weeks, which wasn’t nice.

As soon as the doctor saw me in the stroke ward she was pretty sure I had suffered a stroke, but I needed to have a scan to be sure.

The CT scan came back clear but the following day I went for an MRI and that showed up the stroke.

It was a shock, I was so young and when I looked around the ward everyone else seemed much older.

I didn’t get the thrombolysis treatment for stroke because it only works in the first couple of hours and they had no idea when I had my stroke.

I went to bed just after midnight and was fine and it had already started when I woke up.

I had to learn how to walk again.

At the start, when I was in the hospital, I was in a wheelchair and then was offered a zimmer frame to help me walk.

I didn’t want to use it, but after some convincing, I agreed, but said I wouldn’t use it outside the hospital.

I managed to walk out using crutches, now I use one crutch.

Philip and I got married in February and I was able to walk down the aisle holding on to my daddy very tightly.

The stroke was hard for Poppie.

She came in to the hospital every day I was there so that she wouldn’t miss me too much. She was scared as there were so many needles and I was on a drip.

It was only when I got home that it hit me and I wondered how I was going to cope.

Poppie was only three at the time and for the longest time I couldn’t be left alone with her. Family or friends had to be with the two of us and she picked up on this.

I’ve had another baby since the stroke, Heidi, and Poppie loves being a big sister.

Heidi was a surprise — but she was a good surprise — because I never thought another baby would ever be a possibility because of the medication I was on.

I take Warfarin to reduce the risk of having another stroke and was told that it would be dangerous for me to take it and be pregnant.

As soon as I found out I was pregnant I rang my GP and spoke to one of the secretaries and the poor woman must have thought I was mad as I was crying my eyes out.

But they got it sorted that day, I was put on aspirin and I am still on it to this day.

It’s hard not working but I just couldn’t do it because of the fatigue — I can’t do anything where I’m on my feet all day or sit at a computer screen either as my eyesight has been affected too.

Now I worry about finances too because I can’t work.

Stroke is a terrible thing, but the positives are all the wonderful people at the Stroke Association’s Young Women After Stroke group.

They know what I am going through and we can all have a laugh together as well.

I’m a great believer that everything happens for a reason and, although stroke isn’t a nice thing to happen, good things have happened since.”

The FAST test

  • Facial weakness: Can the person smile? Has their face fallen on one side?
  • Arm weakness: Can the person raise both arms and keep them there?
  • Speech problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say? Is speech slurred?
  • Time: If you see any one of these three signs, call 999. A stroke is always a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention

To find out more about the Stroke Association's Give a Hand campaign, which runs from October 23-30, visit stroke.

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