When you body speaks, listen!

Posted on 13 December 2013

When Shaleen Surtie-Richards, one of South Africa’s most beloved screen icons, suffered a stroke in April 2012, she thought her story was over. Turns out, living with the stroke’s after-effects means
the journey’s just beginning.

Words Amanda Killick

The most endearing aspect of award-winning local screen icon Shaleen Surtie-Richards is that what you see is what you get. She’s plain-spoken, hilariously funny and has a warm kind of charm that’s made a nation as diverseas ours still refer to her as Nenna, the character she played in Egoli: Place Of Gold for almost 18 years. And, just like Nenna, Shaleen is no-nonsense in reality. So when the star says that 2012 was the worst year of her life, she’s not kidding.

Speaking in cursive
‘The stroke came like a thief in the night,’ she says. ‘It was the very last thing I expected to happen. It was the end of April; I was on stage, Polyfilla-ed and opgedollie, doing my thing for a group of ladies at a networking function. I was trying to deliver the line: “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”. All I could get out was the first part. When it came to, “is the hand that rules the world”, that part came out in gobbledygook.’ Shaleen, ever the pro, laughed it off and had another go. The same thing happened.

‘What I couldn’t understand was that I felt fine,’ she explains. ‘I just couldn’t get the words out. That’s when my friend called the ambulance and everything stopped. The paramedic my friend had spoken to told her to give me ice as he suspected a stroke. All I remember is grabbing my cigarettes and going outside to wait for them, sitting with a smoke on one side of my mouth and a block of ice on the other till the ambulance arrived.’
Life’s complicatedAt the hospital, scans revealed that Shaleen, a type 2 diabetic, had suffered a mild stroke. She says, ‘My doctor told me that if I’d reached the hospital five seconds later, I’d have been a goner and if the stroke had occurred 2cm lower, I would be totally blind in my right eye. As it is, my blood pressure was 260, my right hand was a bit tight and hard to move, and the right side of my mouth drooped a little. But all I was worried about was my mom finding out why I was in hospital and stressing herself out.’

Shaleen lives with her 82-year-old mother, Sakkie, in her Witpoortjie home and is the family’s only breadwinner. But the stroke was only the start of her health issues. On being discharged from the hospital, she found herself back there three days later with double pneumonia. Once fully recovered from that, Shaleen made a return visit within three weeks after a fall in the shower injured her right hip, which required two operations to sort out. ‘It was just awful!’ she says.‘You know, I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to diseases and my body, hey,’ she laughs. But then she gets serious. ‘A part of me doesn’t want to admit that I’m ill. I’m the breadwinner, people depend on me and I have a house to pay off, and that stresses me out sometimes, but I can’t let anything throw me off track. My mom, family and staff are my world – and I’m a survivor. The stroke has taught me what to appreciate in life and not to take anything for granted.’

Shaleen was off work for four months, but luckily the stroke has left her with little lasting damage and having to take a lot of medication that she can’t name ‘unless I go get it for you’. But the star says, ‘I can do everything I used to. But I’m not fond of stairs – I’m scared I’m going to fall down them!’

Live long and prosper
Shaleen’s also unapologetic about her lifestyle. She was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000, a result of stress and bad lifestyle choices – but she still chain-smokes and is a chronic chocoholic. ‘Why did Lindt ever have to come into my life?’ she jokes. ‘I have to indulge my craving once a month! In the end, I have to do what’s right for me and that works for me, otherwise there’s no point.’ However, the stroke has left Shaleen more aware of her health and she confesses that she’s incredibly scared that there will be a ‘next one’.

‘Every time I get a headache or feel dizzy, I worry that this is it,’ she explains. ‘But I’m lucky that I have a good support system and can talk myself out of stuff, like depression – things that I can control. If I do feel down, I let myself dwell on it, but I am usually fine the next day. I don’t need antidepressants and can’t allow depression to take over my life.’ The most important thing Shaleen hopes for is that the world can learn from her. ‘You know, people think a stroke is a death warrant,’ she says, ‘and in some cases, it is. But not in mine. I’m the lucky  one and I believe that if you take responsibility for yourself, things don’t have to be bad. I’m not a cat,
I don’t have nine lives and I’m not invincible, but jinne, mense, when your body talks, listen! Do what’s right for you and what works for you when it comes to your health, your life and your future.’

Stroke: signs and symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a stroke are subtle and – unlike a heart attack – don’t involve any pain. But they can’t be ignored, says Dr Alex Landmann, a neurologist at Mediclinic Sandton.

First, what it’s not

A headache is not a warning sign that you’re having a stroke, although migraines (and epilepsy) could cause stroke-like symptoms.
There is no loss of consciousness experienced during a stroke.

What about A mini-stroke or Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA)?
A TIA is a short-lived episode of neurological dysfunction. Symptoms are momentary – the patient seems to return to ‘normal’ functioning after only a few minutes – and mostly affect only one side of the body. They include:
Muscle weakness
A loss of or change in sensation
The loss of sight
Sudden inability to speak.

DON’T ignore these symptoms! You should still seek medical attention, as there’s a high risk of stroke within a week of a TIA. If you suspect you or someone else are experiencing stroke-like symptoms, take an aspirin straight away (no more than 300mg) and seek medical care immediately. A suspected stroke is an emergency and the damage may be reversed if the patient receives treatment within four hours of the onset of symptoms.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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