Lucky Stroke

12 May

If everything had gone according to plan I’d be sitting in a Riad in Morocco right now with my loved one, drinking mint tea watching the orange sun set over Tangier. But life had other plans. We’re still in London and grounded for at least two more weeks. No airline workers’ strike or volcano is keeping us here but a rather more critical personal incident and one that could happen to anyone at any time, any age, anywhere.

My husband Stuart was travelling solo back from Australia to join me in London when he woke from a nap mid-flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow, a twelve-hour Cathay Pacific flight. At first he felt fine but soon became increasingly dizzy and felt tingling in his left arm, leg and face. He called the cabin crew and asked for help but when he went to stand found he could only walk by lurching down the aisle clutching seats. Something was very badly wrong. He could speak and think normally but he was terrified and shaking violently most of the time. A doctor a few seats over realised it was a medical emergency and came to Stuart’s aid. The doctor said it was likely to be a stroke but since he was unable to differentiate between a blockage and a bleed there was nothing he could give him to treat Stuart. The doctor and crew could only help him get through the next six hours until he could have a diagnostic CT scan of his head.

Two hours later Stuart’s vision became blurred then he developed double vision. He was getting worse. I was blissfully unaware of all this and rocked up to Heathrow from Windsor to collect him only to receive a mobile call from the first officer 15 minutes after the plane landed to say that Stuart would not be coming out the normal channel. Cathay were waiting for a high lift to bring him down from the plane and into an ambulance and thence to a hospital. I had to wait for his baggage and passport to be handed over to me before I could drive to the closest hospital, Hillingdon, to see him in A and E. They’d taken him there because the ambulance drivers decided he had a neck injury rather than a stroke as he was so lucid and could speak. Wrong….

To cut a long tale short Stuart was diagnosed on his MRI scan at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow, with a finger tip sized infarct (dead brain tissue) in the right side of the Pons area which sits at the base of the brain. His stroke was caused by a blockage in a small artery feeding the Pons which helps coordinate balance, walking, and some aspects of vision. Whilst the exact cause of his blockage can’t be determined his history of high blood pressure and a family history of stroke are the two factors that predispose him to a stroke. He has no other risk factors.

Within 24 hours Stuart’s condition improved significantly and by 36 hours most of the tingling and double vision resolved and he could walk, albeit with a lurch to the left. By then his family in London, son Tristan and Stuart’s sister Catherine and I, were well acqainted with the Acute Stroke Unit of Northwick Park Hospital, the staff, and the three chaps who shared his ward. The ultimate irony is that I did my Nursing Diploma in Coronary and Intensive Care at that hospital.

Stroke doesn’t discriminate. In the UK someone has a stroke every five minutes. Some kill, some resolve completely in a few minutes or hours. And whilst most people who have a stroke are over 65 (Stuart is a very fit 60) a brain bleed or clot can strike anyone, even babies. We are fragile vessels indeed.

In Stuart’s case after four days of very expensive NHS hospitalisation that cost us nothing as the UK and Australia have a reciprocal agreement to treat stroke patients for free, he was discharged to my tender care with a packet of Aspirin and advised to keep his blood pressure at 130/80 and to do as much as he feels able to. As noted he can’t fly for a fortnight and he must be tested by a GP before he can drive or ride a motorcycle again.

Today, one week after his stroke, my man is 75 per cent back to where he was. He has tingling in his left hand most of the time and sometimes in his face. He still veers to the left a bit when he walks and his balance is affected. The worst impact is that most of the time he feels drunk but without the fun parts that come from having that one beer too many. It doesn’t affect his cognition but it’s debilitating for him to wake up feeling groggy and then stay groggy.

We know about the neuroplasticity of the brain and remain very hopeful that more progress is possible but even if this is as good as it gets I am grateful and feel incredibly lucky to have my husband back. It saddens me to say that at the time Stuart’s plane landed a Qantas flight also touched down with one passenger on board who didn’t make it home.
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This is an informative site about stroke: http://www.stroke.org.uk

Photos were taken at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow, London and Comfort Hotel, Harrow where the staff looked after me well while I was shuttling back and forth to the ward.

My sincere thanks to:

Consultant Doctor Raj Bathula, Northwick Park Hospital Stroke Unit, for answering every question as well as he could, even the stupid ones

Reception staff, Sir Christopher Wren Hotel, Windsor, who could not have been more helpful

Breakfast room waiter Ramlee at the Comfort Hotel, Harrow who made sure I had a great breakfast to start the day and Natalie and Samad who were so kind and accommodating

Nicholas, the Cathay Pacific ground staff supervisor on duty at Heathrow, who assisted me and guided me to Hillingdon Hospital Accident and Emergency

Dr Nyan Lynn who cared for Stuart inflight

Dr Dell at Hillingdon Hospital A and E, for making a follow up call to see how Stuart was

Ramela, ward clerk Northwick Park Hospital, for cups of tea and her friendly, smiling face

Sue Fenwuck Elliott speech therapist doubling as overseas office clerk Northwick Park Hospital on a Bank Holiday who listened and reassured

Sister Matupe, African day shift nurse Haldane Ward, Northwick Park Hospital, who kept the tests moving along so Stuart could be discharged as early as possible

All our friends and family who sent buckets of love and positive energy from all corners of the earth. It made all the difference.

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6 Responses to “Lucky Stroke”

  1. Dad May 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Looking forward to joining you in a toast to all the people who helped. Love Dad & Mother

  2. Michelle Noble May 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Crikey Sharon, that was a close shave….Bryan had a stroke aged 43 (5 years ago). Other than 140/80 blood pressure no other contributory factors and they put it down to just complete bad luck – happens to 2 in 100,000 people – but since then I’ve spoken to other people whose brother/boyfriend has had a similar event. We think it’s related to several things not least of which is dehydration and altitude- something our cycling heros of the mountains take in their stride. Anyhow, Bryan recalls that horrid punch drunk feeling and other than feeling slightly disorientated if he gets up in the night he’s recovered extremely well, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel for you! In fact, it’s sorted out his sea sickness as the part of the brain that deals with balance has been “knocked out”! He’s been taking a 75mg aspirin ever since and other than been told to stay below 1000metres and keep his heart rate below 140 for the first month, no other medication. Your gap year has certainly been eventful but thankfully the right people have been in the right place at the right time – apart from the ambulance driver of course! Our love and best wishes to you both. Michelle and Bryan.xx

    • Sharon Tickle May 14, 2012 at 6:19 am #

      Thanks Michelle. It’s reassuring to hear Bryan’s experience as he is so highly functioning. Stu is committed to doing everything he can to prevent another stroke but knows the odds. One of his main motivations is to get back on the ski slopes. Wish they were at lower altitude ;-)) Have a great summer. Sharon xx

  3. Gary May 14, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    Gosh, Sharon! That must’ve been quite a shock for you. At least now you know things are going to get better. I know how you feel, cos I had a close shave with death some time ago too. But that’s another story for another day. Meanwhile, treasure what time you have together and continue to live life to the fullest!

  4. Dr Deborah James May 24, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    I trained with Sue Fenwick Elliot and she is my best friend. I am so pleased to have been able to observe her part in the transformative work that has gone on in the NHS which has demonstrable impact on the lives of people. Hearing patient stories like this helps people like us stay motivated and passionate about the work that we do. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your story, naming the impact and acknowledgeing the people who helped you. Deborah

    • Sharon Tickle May 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      Dear Deborah, The NHS seems to get a lot of bad press which should be balanced with positive experiences such as ours. Stuart continues to improve and is 95% of the way to a full recovery.

      Keep up the good work!

      Sharon

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