Recovery After Stroke
Posted on 1 September 2021
Adapting to a new way of life after a brain attack is a gradual and demanding process. Survivor Gavin Dudley explains more.
“On the night of my stroke, I’d been working late and eventually dozed off on the couch watching TV,” says Gavin Dudley, a 52-year-old Cape Town father of two. “When I woke up after midnight, I found it strange that I struggled to put my slippers on. I shuffled off to the bathroom to brush my teeth – where I fell over as I lost all control of the left side of my body. I called for my wife, who had to drag me through the house to the bedroom as I was unable to assist her in any way. It was completely disorientating and unnerving. Part of me knew I’d had a stroke and I realised it was serious. Fortunately, I recognised I still had my mental faculties – I was conscious and could respond – but I also knew I’d suffered some brain trauma.”
Gavin adds that his underlying anxiety was that he’d lose function in his hands. “As I am a specialist technical journalist, that would’ve impacted my role as provider for my family,” he says. “I did however feel a sense of calm when I resigned myself to the medical care of the first responders. I had full confidence in them – and knew I was being taken to the top-class emergency unit at Mediclinic Constantiaberg.”
As Emergency Medicine Manager Dr Melanie Stander explains, Mediclinic hospitals are primed to offer an acute integrated stroke service led by a team of multi-disciplinary healthcare professionals to ensure the best possible patient outcomes. Emergency centre staff, radiologists who conduct MRIs to diagnose stroke and gauge the severity of brain damage, stroke physicians who decide on the most appropriate form of treatment, and other specialists who perform intervention, all work together to treat stroke patients timeously and effectively. “International protocol suggests we have a four-and-a-half-hour window period in which to determine a patient’s optimal course of treatment,” Dr Stander explains. Gavin received expert medical attention within that golden time frame.
“In hindsight, although the reason for my stroke was partly genetic, work stress played a major factor in my overall wellbeing,” Gavin says. “My health was good and I had no lingering illnesses, so I had absolutely no inkling that something so serious would cut me down so quickly.” Stroke can affect movement, the senses, feeding, emotions, other body functions and energy levels. In Gavin’s case, although his speech wasn’t affected, his mobility was severely compromised. “I was paralysed for nearly a month – and worked incredibly hard with the physiotherapists to get full functionality back,” he explains.
As the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA states, recovery from stroke depends on many factors. The most important are the extent and location of brain damage, and how quick and effective treatment is. Early rehabilitation is very important, and the amount of recovery and progress someone makes in the first few weeks can be a valuable indicator of their long-term potential to recover.
“I spent two weeks in hospital before being transferred to a step-down facility,” Gavin says. “There I continued working with physiotherapists who made me do exercises like walking backwards, throwing balls and climbing stairs, while the occupational therapists concentrated on my fine motor skills, teaching me how to dress myself and use a keyboard again. And I remember every recovery milestone – from being able to wheel myself around the hospital in a wheelchair, to being able to balance on one leg, and finally, the moment I was able to walk without support for the first time.”
Today, Gavin has made an almost full recovery. “I realised I’d dodged a bullet and I have made significant changes to my life to prevent myself from suffering another stroke,” he explains. “I’ve changed my diet (no sugar, low carbohydrates) and my working style. I am more wary of stress and am learning to delegate and moderate the number of things I take on board.”
Although he still can’t stand on a chair – or walk on uneven terrain for too long – Gavin is indebted to the team of medical professionals who assisted him in his recovery. “My GP also played a key role in contextualising my medical drama and helping me stay positive. And I continue to improve every day.”