My name is Jon and I’m a stroke survivor. I was a 33-year-old fit man, exercising regularly and living a relatively healthy lifestyle (the odd beer or sausage roll excluded!). On 7th November 2020, I had an arterial dissection which led to a stroke.
In the week before, I had felt off colour with a stiff neck, a small headache and the occasional bout of dizziness. As a typical bloke, I put this down to some stress at work and potentially an ear infection. This was during the height of the second lockdown, and I had been told by the app to self-isolate, so I also wondered if my symptoms were somehow related to Covid. The stiffness in my neck had been consistent for about a week but I thought it was more muscular than anything else.
On 7th November, after a week of being locked away, I decided to do some exercise in the living room. I jumped in the air as instructed by the Boxercise instructor and when I landed, a dizziness came across me like nothing I have ever experienced before. I’ve experienced rooms spinning after a night out, but this seemed ten times worse. I shouted for my wife because I felt like I was about to collapse. Thankfully, she was just in the next room, but seconds later, I was already partially paralysed lying across the sofa. Looking back now, I was fortunate and unfortunate enough that I was showing all the classic stroke symptoms: drooping left side of my face, slurred speech, inability to move. This meant my wife rang an ambulance immediately and through luck, they arrived within 15 minutes. Bless the two female paramedics who, with my wife, had to hoist an almost paralysed 16 stone man onto a stretcher. As I was wheeled into the ambulance, I distinctly remember being very embarrassed about being taken to hospital after 15 minutes of Boxercise!
In the ambulance I remember hearing the paramedics calling ahead to the hospital and mentioning the word ‘stroke’. I could hardly believe this would be possible given my age. When I arrived at the hospital, I had been violently sick in the ambulance and again in the hospital bed, which now I realise was a tell-tale sign of a stroke. After a few scans, the consultant told me that they had found a clot in the back of my head. I feared the worst, but the consultant sought to reassure me that they would be able to treat me. Perhaps what was the most worrying thing was the consultant had never administered the thrombolytic drug to someone of my age and weight before. Worse still, they wanted to send me to a different hospital to perform a thrombectomy. With the limited thinking I was able to do, the fact that my case needed to be escalated to a more specialised hospital was even more scary.
At this point, I was blue-lighted across London to St George’s Hospital in Tooting with a fantastic nurse from the Princess Royal Hospital in Orpington. All sorts of dark thoughts crossed my mind at this point. This is not the way I had intended on spending my Saturday… Through that journey, some of my symptoms were getting worse rather than better, following the administration of the thrombolytic drug; I totally lost the ability to speak and to use my left side. The good news was that when I arrived at Tooting, and following the scans there, the thrombolytic drug was working, and they decided to not do a thrombectomy. Once this was decided, I was admitted to the hyper-acute ward. For the first 24 hours, I was checked and monitored constantly. Thankfully, my speech returned, as well as some movement in my left side. They are a wonderful staff there and they encouraged me and consoled me through what was an incredibly traumatic experience, not helped by the fact that I couldn’t have any visitors, including my wife, due to Covid policy in the hospital. As a 33-year-old man in good physical health and a degree in Spanish and French, I was devastated and embarrassed, rightly or wrongly, by my inability to walk and talk.
However, within the course of five days, I was back on my feet, following extensive physio. I had regained my ability to talk and was able to converse with family and friends via Whatsapp voice messages and calls. It wasn’t lost on me that a stroke had had a bigger impact on many more people in my ward than it had on me. I was then moved back to Orpington for a final two days and discharged after a week in hospital.
What struck me deeply when I was researching stroke survivor stories was that many people had had to make substantial changes to their lives, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to accept that level of change to my life. I wanted to continue with the job I enjoy, I wanted to have a family with my wife, I wanted to get back to playing golf and cycling and I wanted to be able to socialise and travel how I wished.
I was fortunate to be put in contact with a physiotherapist called Gemma from Rehab Physio London, who specialises in neuro-rehab for stroke survivors. Alongside some occupational and speech therapy from the NHS, Gemma and I worked together daily for a few months. The therapy was really focused on strengthening some of the physical weaknesses caused by the stroke, as well as building up my fine motor skills on my left side. I had to treat my recovery as a job. I worked on it for several hours each day with rest breaks. All of my family supported me in doing this, taking time off work to sit with me and practise some of those basic motor skills. As a result, I went back to my full-time job 7 weeks later. In hindsight, this was a blessing and a curse; it gave me a concrete deadline to work towards, which was very motivational, but I hadn’t perhaps done all the processing of the trauma.
Fast forward 12 months, and I am delighted to say that I am a new father, I’m in full time employment, and I’m still as rubbish a golfer as I ever was. However, I see this as a huge achievement and I’m proud of the effort that I put into the recovery. I appreciate that I was incredibly lucky in terms of the long-term severity of the stroke. I would though urge anyone that has recently suffered a stroke to have belief that committing to your recovery can lead to a positive outcome. I refuse to be defined by my stroke. Equally, I know that having had this experience has made me stronger and even more determined to enjoy what life has to offer.