Wrapping presents, decorating the tree and cooking a traditional dinner; it’s often the little things so many people enjoy doing at Christmas time.
But for one in four people in Northern Ireland living with a chest, heart or stroke illness, these pleasures are often virtually impossible.
That’s why Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke (NICHS) believes there is no better time for raising public awareness about the long-lasting effects experienced by those who had suffered heart attacks, strokes or have a respiratory condition.
It’s also why the health charity is now launching its ‘Little Things’ appeal to highlight the range of things that people affected by these illnesses might still be unable to do.
Philip Burns was only 19 years old when he suffered a stroke back in 2012.
The Carryduff man, now aged 28, lay alone on his landing for 10 hours before he was found and taken to Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.
There he learned he had suffered a haemorrhagic stroke, which could have happened any time, due to a congenital condition.
He said he refused to believe the medics who told him he would never walk, move his left arm or fingers or work again.
“I was determined I was going to get better. And, eventually, I walked out of the hospital,” said Philip, who was left with weakness on his left side and now uses a walking stick to get around.
Philip’s stroke had a huge impact on his life and the things he can and cannot do.
“It’s often the little things that get to me,” he said.
“I can’t carry a cup of coffee upstairs. I can’t tie my shoelaces. Even putting toothpaste on my toothbrush is an issue.”
“At Christmas, there are lots of little things that I can’t do. Putting up decorations on the tree, wrapping presents or writing cards are all a no go.
“Carrying shopping or delivering presents is also out of the question, as I couldn’t carry them and walk with my walking stick at the same time.”
March 4, 2015, started out as a typical day for 37-year-old Lisa Lecky, who collapsed without warning while out for a jog.
The next thing the then pregnant mum to toddler Conor remembers is waking up in the Royal Victoria Hospital two weeks later.
Lisa, who spent six months in hospital, had suffered a stroke called a subarachnoid haemorrhage which involves bleeding on the brain’s surface caused by a ruptured brain aneurysm.
Her left arm was subsequently left permanently paralysed and she had to learn to walk again.
Today, six years on, she can walk short distances with the help of a walking stick.
Sadly, more challenging trips aren’t possible; just one of the little things she can no longer enjoy.
“I can’t go out to the shops at Christmas,” Lisa said.
“I can ask other people to help buy the gifts for the kids. I can give them a list. But I can’t go and pick out any little extra surprises for Orla or Conor. It’s just not the same, so it does make me sad.”
She added: “In the winter, I can’t button up the children’s coats for them or tie their shoes. As a mum, it’s tough when there are some little things you have to rely on others for.”
Newtownhamilton farmer Mary Lockhart suffered a stroke in December 2011 followed by two further strokes shortly afterwards.
After two months in hospital and physiotherapy, her right side remains weak.
“When I first got home from the hospital, I was in a wheelchair,” Mary said.
“I couldn’t tend to my farm like I used to. I love spending time in nature and with my animals — those little things are so important to me.”
“I also don’t have the same concentration. I couldn’t cook a Christmas dinner now like I used to do.
“I can cook for myself but having to cook for several people would make me nervous.
“Having a lot of people in the house and too much noise would affect me as well.”
NICHS provides life-changing care and support services to individuals like Philip, Lisa and Mary as well as anyone at risk of, or currently living with, chest, heart and stroke conditions.
One of the services is the Young Stroke Group which Philip and Lisa attended.
Philip said being part of the group really increased his confidence.
“Speaking to other people in the same boat really helped, as did the activities,” he said.
“Now, even though I know I can’t turn back the clock, and there are still some little things I will never be able to do, I make the most of what I can do.”
Likewise, Lisa said she found other group members “inspiring and supportive”.
She added: “Even though there are still some little things I can’t do because of my stroke, meeting others who were dealing with the same problems and learning how to overcome them has helped so much.”
Mary, meanwhile, attended NICHS’s rehabilitation service PREP (Post Rehab Exercise/Education Programme).
She said: “When I came home, two months after my stroke, I couldn’t walk.
"If it hadn’t been for PREP, I might still be in a wheelchair.”
Noelene Hughes, head of stroke services, said NICHS is there to provide expert care and support to the 335,000 people who are currently living with such conditions in Northern Ireland.
“Nearly 90% of NICHS’s care, prevention and research services are funded exclusively by public donations,” she said.
“These funds are essential in enabling us to continue to support the local community and provide life-changing services for people like Philip, Lisa and Mary and their families.”
She added: “Without the public’s generous support, we could not help people across Northern Ireland enjoy more of the little things they love, this Christmas and beyond.”
If you would like to find out more about the many ways to donate to the ‘Little Things’ appeal and support Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke this Christmas, please visit https://nichs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/support-christmas