Young stroke survivors in Australia: the face you wouldn't expect


Jokes before strokes. That’s a little motto I made up for myself but truthfully, literally anything before strokes works just as well.

Brussel sprouts before strokes. Velvet culottes before strokes. Barnaby Joyce doing improv for two hours before strokes. Yet while velvet culottes mightn’t tragically affect 50,000 Australians each year, strokes do. One impacted me at just 22 when I had no risk factors, no warning signs and no family history. I also had no understanding of what a stroke was so that when I had one, I didn’t recognise the signs and wasted hours not getting myself to the hospital. Stroke, I thought at the time, was something that happened to old people. The reality is 30 per cent of Australians who suffer a stroke are under the age of 60 – that’s some 15,000 people struck down by this thing that ‘only happens to old people’.

The day I had a stroke started extremely usual: there was no foreboding tone in the air, no clouds prophetically spelling ‘stroke’ in the sky, no Final Destination vibe to it at all. It was just another standard day with another standard shift at work followed by a standard attempt at working out in the company gym. It was after a ‘standard’ 20 minute jog that shit got real: standing next to the treadmill, taking a sip from my water bottle I was suddenly and instantly hit with a wave of agonising pain that sent me blind for a stretch of a few minutes. I staggered with the impact but remained upright as my entire world went white. When I regained my vision it was blurry at best, with a stabbing pain pulsing deep within my skull and behind my right eye socket. Being of a clumsy, baby giraffe disposition I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing concussion before and that’s the closest I can come to putting the sensation into words. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me. I got lost in a straight hallway in the building. I couldn’t get the strap of my bag over my shoulder. I couldn’t dial numbers on my phone.

Thinking perhaps I was experiencing a migraine for the first time, I caught a cab home from the office remembering very little of the actual journey itself or how I paid the driver once I made it to my address. I wasn’t thinking that I could be having a stroke. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I have low blood pressure: the ‘S’ word didn’t even cross my mind. Instead I took a handful of pain killers and went to bed, thinking I could sleep it off. I passed out and woke up six hours later after hearing one of my flat mates in the kitchen. Still feeling ‘off’ I went to go and tell her that I was feeling strange and if she could keep an eye on me. Except I couldn’t talk: I could barely walk. The entire left side of my body had ceased to function, with my foot dragging behind me as I moved and my sentence coming out vaguely like: “Ssszl lsgugfdkj sbuwgbwwi ssszzzzz.” My roomie, knowing that I didn’t usually resemble an extra in The Walking Dead, threw me in the car and drove me to the closest hospital where over 24 hours later I was diagnosed with having a T.I.A.

That stands for transient ischaemic attack aka mini-stroke aka stroke zero. When it comes to strokes, time is crucial: optimum treatment time is within the first twenty minutes. The reason it took so long for my stroke to be diagnosed and then treated accordingly was even the medical professionals had stroke as the last thing on their list. Regardless of all the symptoms being there, I couldn’t communicate with the doctors properly to tell them what I was experiencing. I couldn’t tell them that when they asked me how much alcohol I drank a week that I preferred ginger beer and eating my body weight in hummus. I couldn’t tell them that when they asked if I had a cocaine problem – cocaine abuse can be one of the causes of stroke, especially in younger cases – the closest I’d come to using hard drugs was shovelling a spoonful of icing sugar into my mouth in a dark moment. They thought brain tumour before they thought stroke, a spinal tap to see whether there was fluid on my spine being a test they conducted before examining the MRI of my brain which showed unusual shading on the right side of my brain which would be indicative of a stroke that would impact the left side of my body. Bingo.

Being told you’ve had a stroke and accepting you’ve had a stroke are two entirely different things. Yet the reality becomes a whole lot crisper when you have to spend a period of time in a stroke ward. In my case, I was the youngest person there by an odd 40 years. The man in the bed next to me was strapped to the frame day and night and would wait until the change of nurses before he would try and break free of his constraints. The woman directly across the room could do one thing and one thing only: wave. So she sat there and waved at me, every day, twelve hours a day, for a week. Thankfully the recovery rates for a young person who suffered a T.I.A are pretty good, yet for almost a month I lost my most treasured ability: to communicate. For a week I couldn’t write and my sentences were little more than fragments and self-depreciating jokes. A friend bought me a packet of colouring pencils and a sketchbook while I was in hospital and I remember the sense of desperation I felt trying to draw Spider-Man, wanting it desperately to be an outlet that I could utilise instead of a cloudy former skillset I once had.

In the five years that have passed since, there have been ups: I regained movement and full functionality of my limbs (meaning that my career as a professional crumper is still intact), I was able to return to work and do a job I truly loved and I was able to educate others about how stroke doesn’t discriminate: it doesn’t matter what age you are, what race, what gender. One in six Australians will be affected by stroke yet somehow there seems to be this collective silence from both the government and general public when it comes to talking about it. And there have been downs: fatigue is one of the lasting effects of stroke survivors meaning you just can’t persevere through wild nights out or a day jam-packed with activities like most 20-somethings, depression rates are higher in those who have experienced a stroke, there’s also the ongoing migraines which become manageable once you know how to treat them but no less frustrating and the brain freezes that appear out of nowhere and rob you of words, calculations or phrases that are usually easy for you to spit out 95 per cent of the time. There are some days when – no matter how hard you try – you just cannot spell the word cat, which is terrifying. Perhaps the scariest moment for me came almost two years after I had the mini-stroke: I woke up one morning and had absolutely no idea how old I was. I couldn’t remember my last birthday, or the handfuls before that, and although I knew what year I was born my brain couldn’t formulate the answer when it came to my actual age. I had to call a buddy in a panicked state and explain that this wasn’t a joke, I was deadly serious, and could they please tell me how old I was with no questions asked? There’s also the issue of contraception for female stroke survivors. One you’ve had a stroke, say goodbye to ever using the contraceptive pill again as the release of hormones in the drug can dramatically increase a woman’s risk of blood clotting which – in turn – can lead to a stroke. The case of 21-year-old Fallan Kurek popularised the issue in late 2015, but unfortunately it’s not limited just to the contraceptive pill: the implant, NuvaRing and even the Mirena IUD. You’re essentially left with four options: condoms, celibacy, the copper IUD or birthing ALL of the children.

Then there’s also the possibility of having another stroke. Because once you’ve had one, you become part of a depressing club that’s statistically likely to see its member experience another stroke – most likely worse than the first – compared to those who’ve never had one. So there’s that. Strokes are something that you can’t predict and something you rarely have any warning about: there are signs when you’re already experiencing one (the National Stroke Foundation’s acronym F.A.S.T is a thing you should learn) but unfortunately you don’t get a Facebook notification from you brain saying ‘hai gurl, you should get yourself to a hospital ASAP on Tuesday at 5.05pm’. When I was finally able to communicate at normal levels again after I’d made it through rehabilitation and returned to a semi-functioning life, one of the first things I did was write a will – at 22. Because if there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me in the time post stroke and from sharing stories with the other stroke survivors I’ve met out there, it’s that stroke is a killer. It’s a Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Jigsaw, Patrick Bateman-esque murderer that’s continually rolling under the radar because stroke isn’t this ‘sexy’ disease that you can roll up and package as a national health crisis – which it is. Yet there’s still never been a Government-funded awareness campaign, yet stroke care is still some of the worst in the Western world compared to the US and UK, yet stroke is still something most of us think only happens to old people. Stroke was something I thought only to old people, until it happened to me.

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