Renee Gardiner: Stroke support is out there

Renée GardinerThe West Australian
Gauze wrapped around a brain.
Camera IconGauze wrapped around a brain. Credit: DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images, DebbiSmirnoff

I remember the day so clearly, it was nearly five years ago. A black curtain moved its way across my field of vision — I went blind. Then, all of a sudden, a lightning bolt of pain ripped through my skull. It moved from the base of my head up, and out the top in the centre, striking towards the sky.

I lost some sensation in my left leg and arm, was weak, and barely able to walk. I started vomiting. I was confused and found it hard to speak.

Something was wrong, very wrong.

The thunderclap headache was unlike anything I’d experienced, even as a migraine sufferer.

I spent a week in hospital on the stroke ward, over the Christmas and New Year period.

While I was in a significantly better state than the majority of patients — many were partially paralysed — it was still terrifying.

A sudden constriction of blood vessels in the left and right occipital lobes in my brain resulted in a series of stroke-like episodes.

It took me many months to recover, regain my eyesight, strength and neurological functioning again.

Having a stroke, or any kind of neurological episode can be an incredibly scary and life-altering experience.

On average there are more than 100 stroke events in Australia every day, and stroke is the leading cause of adult disability. Additionally, cerebrovascular disease, including stroke, is the third most common cause of death in Australia.

Genetics may increase a person’s susceptibility of stroke. However, there are other environmental and biomedical factors that increase risk, including lack of physical activity, being overweight or obese, smoking and high blood pressure — many of these are preventable.

Often, though, the cause remains unknown.

Stroke occurs when vessels in the brain are restricted, deprived of oxygen and blood flow (ischaemic stroke and transient ischaemic attack), or rupture (haemorrhagic stroke). Depending on the severity, recovery can take a long time, and many people don’t fully recover.

However, neurological research has come a very long way, and the brain is no longer considered to be a static machine. The brain is highly malleable and is constantly changing, learning and adapting through a process known as neuroplasticity.

The human brain is the most complex system, currently known to us. It contains some 86 billion neurons that are capable of laying down vast grids and networks of synaptic connections.

It’s possible to rewire faulty circuitry or remap entire sections of our brain. Just like building a muscle, the key to brain training is repetitive action, that incrementally increases in difficulty over time. Slow and steady progress leads to lasting changes.

Patients may experience initial gains, and then plateau in their recovery. Psychological stress and post-stroke fatigue may impact recovery times, and it’s also common for stroke patients to experience depression and anxiety.

If you, or someone you know, is feeling sad or low for more than two weeks or is having trouble sleeping after a stroke, please reach out to your doctor and specialist medical team for support.

Inpatient and outpatient stroke recovery services are available at several Perth metropolitan and regional hospitals.

The Stroke Foundation of Australia is another great resource about treatment, prevention, and recovery. They also have a dedicated telephone service, StrokeLine, for patients and carers that is staffed by experienced health professionals.

When I lost my vision, I started to see things differently. Not all challenges are gifts, not during the moment anyway. But your current circumstances might offer you some deeper insights in time, too.

StrokeLine 1800 787 653

Carers WA 1300 227 377

Lifeline 13 11 14

Emergency 000

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