Belfast Telegraph

PSNI officer Clodagh Dunlop beats locked-in syndrome and marks stroke anniversary with a sky dive

The inspirational 37-year-old was left with locked-in syndrome after suffering a devastating brain stem stroke last April.

By Lisa Smyth

Clodagh Dunlop has done the unthinkable — by jumping out of a plane on the first anniversary of the stroke that nearly killed her.

The inspirational 37-year-old was left with locked-in syndrome after suffering a devastating brain stem stroke last April.

Clodagh, a policewoman from Magherafelt, spent months trapped inside her body unable to move or speak and was only able to communicate by blinking.

However, she has astounded everyone with her miraculous recovery and chose to do a sky dive to mark the day she almost lost her life.

She explained: “My partner Adrian and I travelled a bit before my stroke and one of the things we did was a sky dive in Namibia.

“When I was locked-in I spent so much time thinking back to that sky dive and the way it felt, the sensation of your arms flying in the wind. It was an escape from reality for me.

“Adrian and I were talking about what we would do for the anniversary of the stroke and going out for dinner just didn’t seem right, so we decided we would do a sky dive instead.


“It was such an incredible experience to be able to do it again and I can’t talk about it now without crying.

“If you look at photos of me and Adrian, we both just have these big grins on our faces, we were both so happy it was happening.”

While being able to do the sky dive was an important milestone for Clodagh, she said simple activities she used to take for granted are equally as important.

For example, instead of elaborate celebrations for her recent birthday, she opted to spend the day with family.

“I love Adrian’s poached eggs so I asked him to make me poached egg on toast for breakfast and then we had family around for a barbecue,” she said.

“It sounds sad, but this time last year I was in hospital and all I could do was blink, so it was a pleasure this year to just be able to talk and eat.”

Clodagh’s world was shattered on Easter Monday last year when she collapsed at home and was rushed to Antrim Area Hospital.

“I’ve had flu and illnesses before, but nothing like this. I actually told my sister I thought I was dying while we were in the ambulance,” she explained.

“The actual stroke happened a few hours later and I had this all-consuming feeling of death and I actually said goodbye to my sister and dad.

“It’s so bizarre to have a near death experience.

“Beforehand I would have been very sceptical and would have thought people were delusional about the whole thing, but I really did feel like someone had come to me.


“I was not frightened, I remember thinking, ‘okay, I’m dead’. I definitely had an outer body experience.

“There was someone there telling me I was fine. I was happy, I mean I didn’t want to die because I love life, but I accepted it.

“But then I could hear my sister screaming, telling me to wake up and slapping my face. I believe it was her that pulled me back.”

She woke later in ICU, but did not initially realise the severity of her condition.

“I actually had a real sense of satisfaction when they told me I had a stroke because I felt like I had been right all along. It was only a few hours later, lying there with tubes in my mouth, machines everywhere and the place looked like a spaceship, that I started to think it might be bad.

“They didn’t tell me for the first few weeks that I had locked-in syndrome and I found out by accident when one of the nurses mentioned it to me.

“Not being able to communicate was probably one of the most frustrating and difficult things in my life.

“I could be lying there in pain and couldn’t tell anyone.

“I might have looked perfectly comfortable, but really I was screaming inside my head and because I had no facial expressions, no-one could tell.

“I used to lie and cry and because I couldn’t wipe my eyes, the tears would stay there and sting my eyes, which just made me cry even more.

“I remember lying there and seeing my dad so distressed and not being able to say, ‘I’m okay daddy’, it was just the hardest thing.”

Inside, however, Clodagh was determined to get better.

The first sign of life came when she responded by blinking at Adrian and very slowly she started to regain the ability to move.

At the end of each visit by family and friends, she would try to tell them she loved them and she would spend hours reading books out loud.


Bit by bit, her speech improved and in August last year she was able to stand up.

In November she walked out of Musgrave Park Hospital and last week she managed to walk a mile for the first time since her stroke.

“I was so tired afterwards, but I just know that one day I will be able to run again,” she said.

Having regained her speech, Clodagh is now determined to raise awareness of the signs of stroke — particularly among younger people.

She believes doctors failed to consider the possibility she was at risk of having a stroke due to her age.

She collapsed a number of times in the days running up to the stroke, but despite suffering a range of classic stroke symptoms, including slurred speech, she was not given any preventative treatments.

“My case is not unique,” continued Clodagh.

“During my time at the brain injury unit at Musgrave Park Hospital I met so many young people who had strokes.

“I know a young man who is only 21 and he went to hospital with a severe headache and they thought it was down to illegal drugs.

“It’s fine to query that in this day and age, but he insisted he hadn’t taken any.

“He went home and had a very bad stroke and has been left with major disabilities.

“I think a lot of times they just discount the possibility of a stroke because of age.”


According to Clodagh, one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is the fact that she will never fulfil her dream of joining a specialist PSNI unit that carries out operations such as drug raids and dealing with firearm incidents.

“Before my stroke I was extremely fit, I ran, I could do hundreds of press-ups at a time,” she said.

“I hope that one day I will be able to go back to work, although it will likely be a desk job and that has been hard to accept.

“I just have to tell myself that everything happens for a reason and I know that no matter how bad things are for me, there are always other people out there who have it much worse.”

A stroke is a brain attack which happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, caused by a clot or bleeding in the brain.

One in four strokes in the UK happen in people under the age of 65.

In 2013/14, an average of 11 people a day were admitted to a Northern Ireland hospital after suffering a stroke.

In 2014, 1,002 people died after a stroke — equating to three people a day.

May is Stroke Awareness Month and to coincide with this the Stroke Association is running its annual Make May Purple campaign.

The charity is hosting a number of fundraising events throughout the month.

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