One year on

Today marks the one year anniversary since I suffered what the medical staff in the hospital described as a massive stroke. An ischaemic stroke like the one I had occurs when a blood clot travels through the circulatory system and eventually gets lodged in one of the small arteries in the brain, blocking it. The part of the brain supplied by that artery is then deprived of oxygen, so it dies. Surrounding brain tissue goes into shock. The stroke I had killed off a substantial part of the rear third of the right hemisphere of my brain. The right hemisphere controls the left hand side of the body whereas the left hemisphere controls the right hand side. However for almost everyone, no matter whether they are right or left handed, the language centres of the brain, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, are located just behind the temple on the left side of the head. Broca’s deals with expressive language, word finding and sentence construction, while Wernicke’s controls comprehension.

These areas were thankfully unaffected by my stoke, so although I still have significant issues with my left hand and arm, which are troublesome as someone who was very strongly left handed before the stroke, my speech and language are now back to normal, so I am still as much of a gobshite as I ever was.

I did have some speech problems immediately after the stroke. I had significant muscle weakness, paralysis, and loss of sensation affecting the entire left side of the body, including the lips, tongue and the larynx. This caused a noticeable ‘reediness’ to my voice quality as well as significant slurring. I also had some issues with eating and drinking although thankfully was still able to swallow. In addition I experienced memory problems, I kept repeating myself, I kept repeating myself. More worryingly in the first week after the stroke I lost entire days.

These issues have now resolved themselves. The ‘shocked’ brain tissue surrounding the area of brain tissue killed off in the stroke has recovered. Additionally the human brain is a highly plastic organ, it can and does learn to rewire itself and create new neural pathways to bypass the destroyed tissues.

One of the most troubling symptoms in the aftermath of the stroke was a visual disorder called hemianopia. My brain was no longer processing visual information from the left hand side of the visual field. This can occur when the stroke is as in my case, toward the rear of the brain and affects those parts of the brain dealing with vision. In my case what happened was not partial blindness but rather an inattention to the left side of the visual field. I could still see it – my eyes are fine – but it was no longer registering with my brain. I had an vision exam a couple of months ago and was delighted to find that this problem has completely resolved itself. Had it persisted I would not have been able to drive again.

I am still not driving. I only have the use of one hand and arm and am waiting for a specialist NHS assessment for driving. Due to covid there is a long waiting list so I’ll have to be patient.

My walking is doing well. I no longer need the wheelchair I relied on if I had to go more than a few yards when I was released from the hospital. I rely on a walking stick and got a very spiffy antique one as a present from my better half. It has a carved wooden handle in the shape of a hippo’s head. I am slowly trying to work on my strength and stamina and increase the distance I am able to walk. Our new home is very close to the train station and last week I was able to get into Ayr by myself. That felt like a major achievement and a big step on the road back to a normal life.

Another major milestone was being able to have a bath again. Wallowing in a bath with a book was always my favourite means of relaxation and I really missed being able to do that. The accessible bathroom in our new house has a bath that I can sit on the side of and then swing my legs into the bath. With the aid of some grab rails I can repeat the process in reverse and get into a kneeling position in the bath, then stand and get myself out the bath by sitting on the side. There were some false starts, the first few times I got stuck, but now I’m able to manage it.

Some small aids go a long way to helping get back to an independent life. I have a handy wee button pull device which is a big help with fastening buttons. As a decided poseur with a taste for vintage suits I am at long last able to get myself dressed in a three piece suit and tie for a special occasion, or indeed just because I feel like it. It takes me ages, but I can do it.

I still struggle with tying shoe laces, and usually have to admit defeat and get help with that, but the rest I can manage by myself, which is a big improvement as in the weeks following the stroke I was dependent on help to get dressed and washed and even to get to the toilet.

Sadly it’s not all good news. I have considerable pain and stiffness in my left leg and arm. Sensation and proprioception (the awareness of where your body is located, the force your muscles exert and the motion of your limbs) are slowly improving but remain poor. Coordination, strength and fine motor control are also very poor. I can’t hold a pen or a knife and fork and need someone to cut my food up for me. Simple tasks that require the use of two hands remain beyond me. You don’t realise just how much you need two hands until you only have one, and the difficulties are compounded by the fact that it’s my non-dominant hand which I am still able to use.

Typing is still slow and laboured, involving pecking away with my right hand, but I’m slowly getting better at it. I am coming to terms with the reality that it’s unlikely that I will ever again be able to engage in the artistic and creative pursuits I used to enjoy. Public speaking is also likely a thing of the past even when I am able to drive again.  I tire easily, can’t stand for any length of time and find it difficult to project my voice.

Fatigue remains an issue, but it’s not quite as bad as it was a few months ago. I have significant weakness in my chest muscles so have problems clearing my lungs of phlegm. I’ve had a couple of asthma attacks and have been prescribed an inhaler so I can at least sleep though the night and no longer wake up every couple of hours struggling for breath and with a hacking cough.

I still have regular physiotherapy. My goal is to build my strength and stamina to the point where I am able to get another dog and to be able to take it for walks in the beautiful South Ayrshire countryside. I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there.

Almost dying and being left with lasting disabilities which may prove to be permanent makes you very aware of the fragility of life. But one year on I am still alive and still here. Doing this blog has given me a reason to get up in the morning and the support of its readers has given me the strength and determination to plough on with recovery, even when it has been painful or challenging. I’m determined that I’ll still be here and still blogging and being a gobshite right up until Scotland regains her independence.

I am now writing the daily newsletter for The National, published every day from Monday to Friday in the late afternoon.  So if you’d like a daily dose of dug you can subscribe to The National, Scotland’s only pro-independence newspaper, here: Subscriptions from The National

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