Return of the Rehab

I thought I wasn’t going to write another one of these but when you’re tasked with typing for 30 minutes a day to strengthen and speed up your affected side, there’s only one thing to start churning out so apologies in advance!

I’m going to start by giving this piece a bit of context. Since the last write up, I am back at work full time (still a primary school teacher, this time in Year 3 with another awesome class), my 2 little boys – Henry and Max – are now 3 and 1/2 years old and coming up 18 months respectively. Beth (the better half) is still teaching too albeit 4 days a week now which means fun time Friday with the boys! Life has been ticking over as enjoyably as it can do with the current state of the world looming in the background.

La Familia

I have recently started a 4 week intensive upper limb rehabilitation programme designed by the physios (Ruth specifically) and tailored to me to try and gain back as much ‘normal’ function as I can in my left hand/arm. By intensive, I mean 5 hours a day, 5 days a week! So I begin typing today on the Friday of the first week – and what a week it has been…

An average day involves some stretching of the fingers, wrist and shoulder to get them ready for a day of graft. I then move on to task specific stuff which is your heavy duty, mentally draining, mind-numbing activities where it is all about the repetitions. Stacking 100+ coins into piles on the kitchen table followed by throwing and catching a tennis ball 100 times does take its toll, not on the hand/arm but the brain. My competitive nature is great during these as I set myself little challenges each day. For example, can I do 10 catches in a row without dropping the ball and if not go back to 0 and start again. It’s very similar to a ’round the clock’ golf putting drill that I used to as a teenager down at the golf club on those long summer days without a care in the world. Luckily, having to work my way through the Tailenders and My New Football Club podcasts as well as Bob Mortimer’s ‘And Away…’ autobiography on audiobook (highly recommended!) is keeping me sane.

Well worth the money!

I have put this typing stint into that morning session to break up the monotony and already the benefit of forcing myself to use the left hand to type is great. It’s very hard to see daily improvements but that is like any form of rehab/exercise/diet etc. – only when you step back and look at how far you’ve come from over weeks, months and eventually years do you get a sense of achievement and pride. This is what I tell myself when I’m struggling in the moment of rep after rep after rep and I don’t think I’ve mastered it nor that I ever will because that’s what makes change/bettering yourself so hard. The relentless inner drive to improve.

After this very specific work, there’s a little bit more freedom in the next session but it still isn’t easy. Everyday 2 handed tasks are what I look to do next which involve tying and untying shoe laces, doing up buttons on my shirt (including the sleeve which genuinely on day 1 took me 5 minutes to achieve – my starting point I suppose), getting my coat on and off with the left arm actually playing a part instead of being a hindrance and finally putting my golf bag and glove on and off – which may seem trivial – but to me is something I worry about when I’m playing as I don’t want to hold my partners up on the tee. I mean, when I’m not playing with Grandad (aka Concrete Ken) of course, who after playing the beloved game for most of his 81 year life still doesn’t understand that the time to start a new monologue about the dreadful parking outside his house at school pick up and drop off times is not as you put your tee into the ground, ready to duff your driver into the ditch…

One of the best tools to work on mobility and wrist strength in particular is a device called GripAble. A mobile handheld device a little bit like a dynamometer that not only measures grip strength but the range of movement at the wrist too. The device also comes with a fully loaded tablet with app and games included. Unfortunately, I’ve only got this on a month long loan so I’m blasting it as much as I can. Another hour of the day ticked off and a more enjoyable one if I’m being honest.

Serious. Fun. Rehab.

As I was doing my baseline assessments for my affected hand on this device it amazed me that my dominant right hand had actually scored weaker than my strokey left! We are still not sure as to why this is happening (MRI’s done and now waiting for test results) but it did coincide with the time that I was extremely nervous and fighting to get the time off from school for the course in the first place. The less said about that the better. So it could be something anxiety related but we aren’t sure. Watch this space…

The simplest but most effective method I’m finding of getting the arm back to some sort of normality though is CIMT (Constraint Induced Movement Therapy). In a nutshell, I have to prevent my right hand from getting involved (by wearing an oven glove on it) and no matter how long it takes or how awkward it feels I have to do as many normal activities with my left thus forcing it to relearn dexterity and simple movements it has lost. The dishwasher, the garden patio furniture and the kids’ toys (to name a few) have all been sorted/cleaned at an incredibly slow pace to begin with but this is gradually allowing my hand to relearn what it has lost over these last 18 months.

Because I have looked like Skeletor since I’ve gone back to teaching – losing a stone and a half in weight – I’ve gone full meathead mode at home and bought some protein powder (hit me up for a MyProtein discount code…) to use after my heavy duty arm and shoulder weight workouts in the makeshift gym upstairs. I’m starting to see small gains in strength, weight and muscle mass in the upper body which is great and will ultimately try to keep this going when the course finishes. Big shout out to JD for a few cheeky gym sessions thrown in when he can be bothered! Nobody warns you about the smells of the protein farts though. Jesus wept…

Even He-Man couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled Skeletor’s finger for the third time that morning…

Away from the rotten eggs of the gym and to something that has genuinely been a game changer for me. Nothing to do with the upper body but a new walking aid called the TurboMed foot brace. Finally, having something I can easily hook into any pair of shoe and walk without the fear of hitching my toe, is awesome. Boring technical stuff = it allows me to level up my hips, lowering the left one whilst also getting a heel strike – mid stance – toe off pattern without thinking about it which is the key. Natural-ish walking is another promising sign!

Because of this improved gait, running is also back on the cards. I have though gone from running a sub 30 minute 5k park run in September to slogging my way round the pavements of Instow in a time considerably slower. However, I am looking to increase the distance I have run even pre stroke and signing up for the Bideford 10K in May is my new motivation. Beth has agreed to run with me but I can just imagine her leaving me in the dust as we turn for home over the old bridge. With the weather getting better and the lighter nights, I’m hoping to keep the miles ticking over after school as long as it doesn’t interfere with the new Monday Cup season which is fast approaching!

I’m now entering the final week and can honestly say I’ve given it my best shot over this course. I’m on track to complete the 90 hour programme and I knew I wouldn’t be ‘cured’ in this blast but it has definitely improved my functioning in everyday life so far. We are having a final catch up online at the end of the week with the others on the course to see how it can be maintained beyond and more importantly in line with full time work and life. Wish me luck…

The End?

So here we are. The 1-year milestone. A very fitting paper anniversary gift to myself and you. The long-standing readers/sufferers who have had to deal with the agony of waiting 323 days since the last full blog. Most of you have been able to keep track on the Insta which has been a lot easier than trying to churn out one of these every few weeks. I do have to begin by saying I started this post a week ago today and the physios who will be reading this will be glad to hear I stuck to my word at the end of the last one. I am using both my hands to type (no speech to text cheating or wonderful wife to do the work for me). I do still have Beth in my life you’ll be glad to hear. She, however, refused to help on the grounds that “If Max wakes up you haven’t got a boob to stick in his mouth!” Fair enough I suppose.

Anyway, what a year eh? We were thinking that doing something grand like an extreme fitness-based challenge which involved some serious training and hard work would be a great way to mark the anniversary. Instead, rather fittingly, we decided on fish and chips at the beach with the 3 most important people in my life: the already mentioned wife, mummy and all-round superhero Beth alongside the 2 reasons that I’m always smiling when I come home after a long day back at work. The soon to be 3, in 3 days, Henry and our not so new bundle of smiles Max clocking in at a ridiculous 9 months old already – where does that time go? The excitement I get knowing that when I walk through the front door those two (and Mummy) are there to greet me fills me with the utmost joy. It’s impossible to put into words.

Will we ever get them both looking/smiling at the camera at the same time?

It’s also impossible to narrow down what has happened over these last 10 and a bit months since the last blog post, but in layman’s terms my life is pretty much back to normal albeit at a little bit of a slower, more cautious pace. Certainly, less energetic which in a way I’m actually thankful for as it means I am much better at prioritising and only doing things I’m capable of – not pulling myself in a million different directions trying to please everyone. I have regular 12-week Botox injections into key leg muscles and before you say it, they’re not to prevent the wrinkles. Not just yet. Although, I am turning 30 this year…

I still take an aspirin a day even though I have been given the all clear by the doctors because you just never know in this life (as we saw with Christian Eriksen this past week). I’m working full time in school as a cover supply teacher, TA and general busy body with a view to teaching my own class in September which I’m excited but also a tad sceptical about. I know I can handle the running of a classroom and more importantly, the kids, from 9 to 3:30 but it’s the workload outside of those hours that I fear may become too much. I am a perfectionist and having to sacrifice my attention to detail on spreadsheets and PowerPoints to get the job done efficiently is something I’m going to have to deal with. If it doesn’t work out then at least I can say I had a go – a little bit like my failed footballing career attempt. Fingers crossed it works out better than that did.

Not only will I be dealing with my own class in September but Beth will be going back to work full-time from maternity leave too. I firmly believe that, even with 3 blokes at home – one who can’t wipe his own backside properly, one who insists on eating his pudding before his dinner and one who can’t walk properly yet (I will let you decide which one is which) – she will be amazing and come out the other side with that beaming dimpled smile. We’ve already talked about how our teamworking skills are going to be tested but we’re ready for it. The main priority, as it always has been, will be, how can we put the kids first? I know we can do it.

To be entirely honest with you, although my recovery up to now has been pretty good in comparison with other stroke survivors, I haven’t worked nearly as hard as Beth has over these last 6 months to keep her fitness up. I’ve lost count of the amount of evenings after the boys have been put to bed that I’ve come down to sit on the sofa knowing full well I should be rehabbing. Instead I sit there with my bowl of Sensations crisps or a packet of biscuits and watch the cricket, golf, F1 and now the Euros whilst she has got the dumbbells out and smashed out another Joe Wicks in front of me. Again, superwoman.

It also brings me nicely onto my next point about how deceptive social media can be. Please don’t get drawn into painting a picture of what you see behind the never-ending stream of Facebook or Instagram posts. To the naked eye my recovery page would suggest that I’m putting some serious effort into getting back to where I want to be but frankly that’s not the case. Yes, I did work hard in those early months to get me functioning again – back to work. Check. Back playing golf. Check. Able to live a full life with my family that doesn’t need assistance. Check. Those were the key goals in my eyes and anything else was a bonus. Yes, it would be lovely to get back and lace up the Phantom’s one more time but truthfully, if I’ve played my last football match for Bideford or Park United then I know I’ve had a pretty decent career. And what a last game to bow out on. Dropped by Joycey for the first time in 10 years only to come off the bench and score the winner in a 3-2 comeback away at Melksham. It’s what dreams are made of.

Beautiful, aren’t they? Not hung up just yet…

Because football seems a long way away for me at this time in my recovery, all of my competitive fixes are coming through golf. Be that a midweek Monday Cup session with the ever-growing crew or a monthly medal off the back tees, I’m managing to compete and get around without too much hassle. Mentally it is so tough not being able to do the things you used to find easy. Golf is where these frustrations are at their worst but through practise and learning more and more about my body and swing, I’m starting to plot my way around the old course and build a score like I used to. Instead of beating myself up over shots that I can’t hit anymore, I’m now relishing the challenge of learning new, inventive ones that I can.

This principle of adaptation is what I thought I was going to have to apply in general life too. But actually, I’ve managed to retrain my hand into using it for pretty much everything it used to do. The extremely intricate movements are still some way off but using cutlery, typing this blog, lifting and carrying objects are all things I do without thinking. I used to panic about this the most in those early months but now the best compliment I can give myself is that I very rarely need to think about changing what I used to do naturally. Hot drinks are still a bit shaky but I will keep persevering even if the scolding coffee burns through to the bone – I will carry two full mugs into the living room one day!

On the physio’s advice I did this by keeping everything as normal as possible and use my weaker left hand even if it meant taking twice, three or even ten times as long – OK maybe not ten but that’s what it felt like some days! Apart from my elasticated laces in my shoes, because who has 10 minutes to tie their shoes in the morning, everything is as it was. A few things have been instrumental in making this way of life possible. I’ve bought an electric trolley for golf (which most golfers use), we’ve bought an automatic car (which is fully electric and was going to be our next big purchase to try and do our bit for the planet anyway) and a flame red trike (because I wanted to ride on the Tarka Trail alongside the boys without the fear of falling off and diving into the river on a normal bike). I also wanted to look like a boss.

The fear of falling over is the one major thought that remains constant pretty much anytime I’m up and moving. Be that around the house, at work, out running or on the golf course. I know falling over can happen to anyone but having ‘properly’ fallen 5 times in the last 12 months due to lack of balance, I’ve actually been lucky to get away pretty unscathed physically. The scars and memories they leave mentally though will remain and ensure I’m extremely careful moving forward. One I’ve documented before was after getting too excited on Wii Fit Skiing, another was early on to trying to walk too close behind HD on his balance bike and two were at work where thankfully no kids were hurt. My favourite though was when I was recently watering the grass out the front and after hitching my toe on the front step I had to take decisive action and leap into our newly flattened row of bushes. Pride well and truly swallowed. The back garden is still intact – at the moment…

Hey, did you know? It’s coming home – pass it on.

I still blame the stroke and the damage it has left behind for a lot of tricky manual tasks but I think my resilience to attempt them is improving and actually realising that the only way to see whether you can do them or not is by having a go. It’s definitely got me into a better frame of mind these last 10 months. I know that these small challenges every day will not define me as a person but hopefully by seeing me persevere and keep going, this ‘don’t quit’ attitude will rub off on my two little chaps as they face their own challenges growing up. An excellent life-long skill to have.

Well done if you have made it this far – I know I can go on a bit, that hasn’t changed. It feels strange to say this is going to be the final blog as it has been really therapeutic and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting the creative writing juices flowing again. Never say never I suppose. The Instagram account is still where I post here and there (@seansstrokerecovery – shameless plug). However, I am hoping that I don’t finish this one with a disappointing ‘Line of Duty’ style ending. Underwhelming and ambiguous. So, I will just say this:

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, follow, comment and send well wishes to me and my family over these last 12 months, I do genuinely read and appreciate them all. Thank you to every doctor, physio, nurse and NHS worker who ultimately saved my life and got me back to this point today. Thank you to the family clans (Downings, Hipwells, Browns, James’, and Watsons) for always being there for us no matter how many times Henry hangs up on you on FaceTime.

But most of all, my last and most heartfelt thank you goes to the guys who are and will continue to be everything to me. My two perfect boys and Beth who ultimately has to put up with me day in, day out. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you but if this last year has taught me anything, it’s taught me that no matter what life throws at us, I know I can count on you to pull us through and we will all be standing there together at the end of the storm. Hand in dodgy hand. Forever and always.


NHS Stroke Video

Here’s a really powerful video that two of the NHS physios (Ria and Alayna) at Bideford Medical Centre have put together highlighting some key information around strokes featuring some cameos from Henry, myself and Byrran (another younger than your average stroke survivor). I hope you find it as informative as I did and if you want any more information then at the end of the video there are some great links/websites that were really useful to Beth and I, especially during the first few weeks:

NHS Stroke Video

The New Norm

So here we are: 6 weeks post stroke. It feels like it has been the longest 6 weeks of my life but also like the stroke could have happened yesterday. ‘Normal’ life has started to gradually come back, such as sleeping upstairs, showering and being able to walk to the toilet by myself. None of this would have been possible without the incredible physios pushing me every day to try something new. It feels as though my body and mind are starting to come to terms with what has happened and the fact that I am now in this recovery process for the long haul. Improvements don’t seem huge, day by day, but I always remind myself of where I was at the start to keep me motivated and pushing on more to where I want to be in the future – as if the stroke never happened. I know that this is an optimistic goal but everything I have read and researched suggests that anything in terms of recovery is attainable if I work hard and practise. It will probably take months, even years and I don’t want to set myself unrealistic targets but until someone tells me I can’t do something, then I am going to believe it is possible. It is hard not having a specific date or end point to work towards (like a football match to return to play in after a simple injury) but I have to remind myself that this is more complex and – to put it simply – I need to learn how to use half of my body again. Although it takes me 10 times longer to do simple, monotonous tasks (such as opening a door or turning a light switch on) I keep forcing myself to use my affected hand as this is the only way that it is going to improve.

I have never doubted my perseverance skills, which stem from childhood games – especially on the PlayStation. The time it takes me to complete tasks nowadays, reminds me of achieving my driving licenses on Gran Turismo and having to repeat certain cornering challenges at least 100 times to reach the gold standard on each one.

Gran Turismo PAL PSX FRONT | Playstation Covers | Cover Century ...
One for the purists.

Being able to do these simple tasks, has all become possible now that I am beginning to gain control over my arm and hand movements – something which in the first few weeks I feared would never come back. The turning point was one evening when Henry was in bed and Beth started my arm and hand stretching routine, which has now become a staple of every evening whilst watching Peep Show on Netflix. Most of these stretches just involved Beth manipulating my arm to make sure my joints didn’t get stiff and sore but on this particular occasion, it seemed as though I wanted to start an arm wrestle as my weedy arm fought back against her resistance. That evening involved me lying in bed punching the air as I was worried I would forget how to move my arm in the morning resulting in a poor night’s sleep – something which I regretted the next day as, like magic, I was able to move it again this time with a touch more control. Sleeping upstairs since we have had the stairlift installed has been a blessing and I have had no problems dropping off because Beth has been working her way through hypnobirthing MP3s talking about a relaxing birth – which fingers crossed will happen in a few weeks time.

I’m sure the baby will be just as incredible as it’s big brother, Henry, who has provided us with more memorable moments during the last few weeks. One of the funniest was when Beth and I were chatting about my new medication at the dinner table completely oblivious to the fact that he had he had devoured his vanilla chocolate balls flavoured Müller Corner. He announced to us that he had stuck a ball up a nostril which we decided to laugh off as he is now at the stage where fact and fiction can sometimes be intertwined (Beth did have a quick glance up his nose but could see no sign of a chocolate ball). However he proved that he was telling the truth with an almighty sneeze that resulted in the elusive chocolate ball being shot out of the nostril and onto his plate. Our hysterical laughing didn’t stop him from picking it back up and putting it in his mouth.

Maybe we should stick to frozen Frubes in the future!

Around this time, I have been able to get out and about more, first in the wheelchair and now walking with an Arsenal walking stick (shout out to the Yarde’s for that gift!) Initially leaving the house was like a military operation, which we are used to with a 2 year old but when you throw in a wheelchair and a set of steps outside the front door to navigate, it becomes much more tricky. Most of our outings therefore involved various members of the family that we roped into being on Henry watch/wheelchair pushing. Now that I can walk a few hundred metres with my stick, we’re able to leave the house on our own which means we are returning to some sort of normality. Beth is not enjoying one aspect of normality around the house however – the return of pre stroke bowel function which results in constant smells lingering around the house just like before!

Live sport being back on our screens is another small part of life returning to usual. Before this happened, I was filling my considerable amount of spare time watching documentaries on sporting comebacks. One that really hit home was the Andy Murray story ‘Resurfacing’ on Amazon Prime which talked about his struggles with hip pain and the fact that his career may be over. The troubles that he faced and thought processes that were going through his mind at that time, are similar to where I feel I am at with my recovery. Another was the Sky Sports Tiger Woods story ‘Back’. While he might not be the best role model in terms of his personal life, the way he has recovered from life-changing back surgery to compete at the very top again is something to be admired. I’m not hoping to win Wimbledon or the Masters any time soon but some sporting comeback is what I dream of in the future. Saying this, however, my very own 15 minutes of fame during this strange time, came in the form of a BBC Radio Devon interview which I managed to stumble through without too many hiccups!

Me and Gordon chewing the fat over breakfast!

Recovery at home has centred around using lots of equipment provided by the physiotherapy team, some of which I have already progressed past. One that I have decided to use myself from a friendly recommendation is the old Wii Fit balance board. Games such as heading the football and skiing have become a regular part of the rehab process when we can fit them in around our hectic schedule. My competitive nature has really kicked in resulting in topping the leader boards being my daily motivation. This motivation went too far on one occasion when, mid ski slalom, a veer to the left (my dodgy side) went too far and led to me toppling over like a great oak tree being chopped down. The only thing that was missing was Henry shouting ‘Timber!’ as I hit the deck and lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. My first concern was the amount of gates I was missing on the ski slope before I shouted for assistance from Beth to manoeuvre me next to the sofa so I could haul myself up and regain my dignity. This to date (touch wood) has been the only ‘proper’ fall since the day I was lying in front of the garage doors and I hope it will be the last. Luckily for me, I am used to diving around on the floor, usually however it results in me getting booked and not being helped up.

The last week has been a rollercoaster of emotions with extreme highs and also a fair few lows (as the reality of this whole situation is really beginning to sink in). One of the highs has been a ‘surprise’ visit from my old Uni friends. For the last year, it’s been impossible for us to arrange a meet up – who would have thought that all it would take was for one of us to nearly die before we could sit in a room and eat Dominos just like we used to 8 years ago. This meetup was the night before the FA cup final and as we were ploughing through our pizzas, I received a message from one of my football mates, James Mayne, who managed to stun the room into silence with a little surprise of his own courtesy of Ricky O’Donoghue and a few of my new buddies.

The boys managed to bring it home for me as well – bring on the BT Sport Thursday nights!

The day after the ecstasy of seeing that message and sending the Flat Tré boys on their way, was the start of my 14 day isolation period before my heart operation. The goal of this operation is to close up the hole in my septum (a wall in the middle of the heart) which allowed the stroke-causing clot to travel up to my brain. They are somehow going to do this by going into my groin and up to the heart with a microscopic tube and camera via the femoral artery. This procedure (done in Bristol) had been planned in for the last few months due to the fact that we had booked it in for the school summer holidays so as not to miss any term time. The frustrating thing is that if this surgery would have happened a few months ago, I would never have had the stroke. A pretty hefty kick in the teeth. However, like I said at the start, my ultimate goal is to get to a stage in my life where it seems as though the stroke has never happened.

I am continuing to document the small steps that I am making each day to get to this point on my Instagram page @seansstrokerecovery. Because baby Downing will soon be making his/her appearance and life will be flipped on its head again, Beth and I have decided for the time being that this will be the last blog post to allow us time to prepare the house and ourselves mentally for the imminent arrival. Hopefully soon, when things have settled down (whatever that may look like with 2 children and a stroke survivor!), I will be able to type the updates myself as part of my rehab process using my own brain and my ever-improving left hand.

Back Stronger

This post is started whilst watching Ben Stokes and Dom Sibley pile on the runs up at Old Trafford. Their single thought mentality is something these last few weeks I can truly admire and aspire to attain in my own rehab sessions. My one goal however is not to grind the West Indies into submission but to gain as much control over my left side as I physically can through sheer hard work and repetition. This repetition can seem monotonous however it is all part of a bigger process. Even though day by day I see very little improvement, I have to keep reminding myself of where I was just four weeks ago to put these small steps into perspective. A useful way of doing this is by keeping a written diary of day-by-day events which Beth manages to do around all of the other things that are going on in her life.

Exercises such as sink squats – trying to focus on the left side of my body – as well as shoulder and arm stretches, which are being done daily by the now expertly trained stroke therapist wife, are now a part of our daily life and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. From my Sports Therapy & Rehab degree days, it’s okay being given a programme to work through by yourself but I am extremely fortunate to be receiving amazing daily care from the early discharge physios at NDDH who are coming out to our home and working through intense rehab on different areas of my body – not just my left side. It’s like having a group of dedicated personal trainers visiting which helps to keep my motivation levels high. The main goal of these physio sessions is to allow me to become more independent with activities of daily life such as walking but more importantly at this stage, getting down onto the floor safely to be able to play with Henry and, in the not too distant future, change a new-born’s nappy. It is not only the getting down safely that is difficult but the getting back up!

As I said before, the rehab not only focuses on my left side weakness but also areas of my body that had been neglected through years of sport. One being my terrible posture – it has taken a stroke for me to finally attempt to sort out my rounded shoulders with the help of K tape! Ultimately I would love to get back to playing competitive sport again – whether that be football, golf or something completely new. However it feels like too far away at the moment to even contemplate running, so leaping high and winning flick ons again is something I try not to think about just yet. This is hard because sport has always been a staple of my life and this was the cause of my first big ‘wobble’ at home with Beth. The fear that I may not be able to do the things I once could is what hit me hardest because you take these things for granted when you are competing in the moment. To counteract this, I feel as though I am treating the stroke as just another injury to add to the extensive list I have already endured and one day I will come back stronger than I was before.

Another motivator that has helped me maintain this positive outlook was when my 2 older cousins, Chris and Dave, as well as my little brother, John, arranged to have a catch up over Zoom. Initially I didn’t think anything of this because Zoom was how we had been taking part in Chris’ extreme workouts, over lockdown and I just thought that they wanted to see how I was doing. Little did I know that it was all part of an elaborate scheme that they had put together to raise funds and equipment for my recovery. As you can see from the video that they secretly recorded (thanks to Alice for cutting out the excessive toilet talk), I was not prepared emotionally and it still hasn’t sunk in that so many people have been so generous to help me return to some sort of normality. Already the funds have gone towards a motorised static bike and the installation of a stair lift allowing me to access a shower and not have to sleep in the living room. I’m then planning to use the rest of the money for private physio, once the incredible support from the NHS physios comes to an end. This is something we couldn’t have dreamt of and I have no doubt it will improve the quality of my and subsequently my family’s life in the future.

Not often I’m lost for words but this was definitely one of those moments!

Prior to the luxury of a shower upstairs, personal hygiene was not a priority for me however Beth couldn’t live with my festering smell which was caused by all manner of bodily fluids. The solution to this initially was a wet wipe wash in the downstairs toilet where I almost froze to death sat on the commode. It was quickly apparent that I could not be trusted to reach every crevice and also the sight of me shivering and the noise of my teeth rattling were too much for Beth to bear so late-night flannel washes in the kitchen sink were a lovely bonding experience between the 2 of us.

After these shower alternatives, I would be wheeled into the front room to lie in bed and settle in for the night watching the TV (usually Premier League football) with an assortment of snacks such as chocolate brownie or Sensations crisps. Pre-stroke, I would have seen this as a dream come true however when it is the only way, the novelty wears off very quickly!

Not just me taking advantage of downstairs living!

As the game would finish, Beth would head upstairs to initially sleep on her own until Henry would choose to wake up at an ungodly hour and jump in with Mummy. As anyone with a child knows, a wake up of 6am is the norm however for a stroke victim, this is not the case. So Beth and Henry were forced to spend the early morning watching Peppa Pig on the tiny TV in the kitchen while I continued to recover through sleep in the living room. My wake ups, an hour or so later, still felt as though I hadn’t had enough sleep. The constant fatigue from morning to evening was, for me, an unexpected side-effect of the stroke in the early days out of hospital (although I have now been told this is completely normal and expected). However by being able to participate in more ‘normal’ day to day living, the need and desire to sleep all day is becoming less and less.

Early wake ups aside, I knew that, when I had a rare day off from the physios coming out, Beth and I would have to attempt our own rehab sessions. With a 2 year old, this can be quite eventful. Having said that, one early session sticks in my mind: Craig David’s Born To Do It was playing on the iPad as I was glute bridging on the bed. Dr Downing (a.k.a. Henry) had out his medical set and proceeded to hammer away at every part of my body including my skull. Trying to encourage him to be gentle whilst also fending him off with one working arm is much easier said than done!

Born to Do It - Wikipedia
Still one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

My improvements are now becoming more regular and noticeable than I am able to keep up with on the blog so I have decided to set up a dedicated Instagram account documenting smaller moments of the recovery. If you are interested, this account can be found at

Beth and I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these posts whilst Henry is playing at Tina’s (his childminder) so we hope to continue with them for as long as life remains this unusual!

There’s No Place Like Home

After another eventful physio session this morning, which included more walking with my Gandalf stick, Beth and I have just sat down to finish off the last days spent in hospital.

As is the way with wards in hospitals, patients come and go like a carousel. My new-found friends, Chris and Patrick, were discharged and quickly replaced with some newbies to the ward. These newbies couldn’t have been more different to the welcoming, talkative duo that I had spent the last week with. This was understandably not their fault, as they had both suffered more serious strokes, leaving them unable to have a conversation and pretty much bed-ridden. These two gentlemen made me realise how lucky I was to still have the ability to think clearly and communicate with people – it could have been so much worse and I remind myself of this when times get hard.

A major concern for me about coming home was that normally, with a discharge from hospital, you would go home and everything would be alright. However, this was not going to be the case and the realisation set in that my wonderful wife Beth, along with her ever-growing baby bump, would have to attend to my basic, everyday needs and, until you’re incapable of doing them, you’ll never truly understand just what that entails. The support from my family and friends has been overwhelming but the 24/7 care that is needed is relentless which frustrates me more than anything because we’ve always worked as a team – especially since Henry came along.

Sitting in my hospital chair for hours at a time with the change of atmosphere on the ward, made me realise that I needed to get home sooner rather than later for my own mental health. This however, would be tricky because I hadn’t quite mastered getting between bed and wheelchair on my own (a transfer – which is now an essential part of daily life). To be able to become an expert at this – like any good teacher knows – practice makes perfect! So whilst getting bored of the snooker on ITV4 (which would never normally happen) the physios came in to see me and prep me for my next rehab session. Before we started, I asked them what I needed to do to be able to get home as soon as possible. They said transferring safely is one of the key elements alongside my home setting and ability of my family to look after me. So this made up today’s session, as although I had grown fond of my new setting, there’s no place like home. At first I was hesitant to fully trust my right leg, as this had been the one to have failed me so many times before (see footballing medical history!). A solid hour spent shuffling from bed to wheelchair was a big determiner in them being able to discharge me the following day. During that afternoon, I started to tell people the good news, especially Beth and HD who had been asking for me for the last few days – an extra incentive to get home. Although, purely based on the fact that my left arm was still incapable of moving under my control, it wouldn’t involve completing games on the N64 such as Super Mario and Banjo Kazooie, which had been the staple of lockdown afternoons for me and Henry.

120 stars in lockdown = Happy Daddy + Happy Henry!

The following day meant it was home time and a 4:30am wake up was probably not the best thing to happen – I wasn’t sure whether this was down to nerves or excitement or maybe a combination of them both. But before I knew it, breakfast had been served and I had my final NHS shower before getting changed ready to be escorted into the back of an ambulance. I was then chauffeured up to my front door where Beth was waiting for me with open arms and tears down her face. Through the front door I rolled and into the living room which now housed my comfy arm chair and the first piece of furniture Beth and I bought together – our 4ft bed. As we said goodbye to the paramedics who had dropped me off, I could not contain my emotions any more. We both burst into tears of happiness and understood that this was the start of what would become the new norm. One of the first moments at home, which made us realise it could be a long process, was returning to bottle-gate and having to wee without visiting the toilet. We hadn’t factored in there wouldn’t be a supply of hospital cardboard bottles to wee in. So, Beth rushed to the kitchen to fetch an old Nike drinks bottle (a Sports Direct special) for me to completely miss and end up, like Henry, feet perched in a pool of my own wee in the middle of the living room carpet. Next stop was Amazon Prime to order wee bottle version 2 and quickly dispose of the Nike bottle.

Henry then joined us after spending a lovely morning with his Nanny, Grandad, Uncle John and Auntie Meg. Throughout this whole process he has been incredible: being passed from pillar to post and now coming to terms with the fact that Daddy needs a little bit of looking after as well. It’s crazy to think that he probably won’t remember any of this when he grows up but hopefully the values he is learning about caring for others and not always being the centre of attention, will stand him in good stead for later life and especially when baby number 2 arrives in a couple of months. His dad having a stroke probably isn’t the most ideal situation for him to learn these life skills, but it’s the route we’re going to have to take.

Henry and his new wheels! He even had to have a cushion for his ‘dodgy’ arm.

As Henry was dropped off in the living room, my mum proceeded to empty a shoe box of goodies that she had bought for me. One of these treats was the latest Golf Monthly magazine with the headline ‘How to Improve Your Stroke’ – what a way to rub it in! Other gifts that have been received have been of a much more sensitive nature and it is overwhelming to say the least that people have taken the time and effort to let me know that they’re thinking about me. The sideboard is overflowing with cards and the cupboards are bursting with treats and I hope that I have remembered to say thank you to everyone, however if I haven’t then I hope you know that I am extremely grateful for your support.

Being the teachers that we are, Beth and I decided to try and set up a routine based around every day essentials – but who knew the nightmare of stroke recovery admin! Physio appointments, childcare, prescription collecting, equipment drop offs and construction work on a new ramp in the back garden (kudos to Joe at David Wilson for organising this for us and being so supportive) takes a lot of discussion and brain space – which I was incapable of – so it has all been thrown on my poor wife’s agenda. Something she has coped with magnificently, which I knew she would.

One thing that she didn’t account for on my first evening home was a messy transfer between armchair and wheelchair which resulted in me rolling my ankle on my left side. Due to the reduced sensation in that side of my body, I wasn’t sure whether any serious damage had been done. Because of the new ache in my ankle and how cold my foot was (which we later found out is caused by lack of circulation) we spent Sunday morning on the phone to the 111 doctors. They decided to send out an ambulance and take me back into A&E as a precaution. When I arrived, they x-rayed my foot to check for damage but luckily my flubber legs had managed to withstand the sloppy transfer and subsequent weight going through my ankle. I was escorted home again in the back of one of these all too familiar ambulances – I really feel as though my NHS tab is growing day by day! Not the perfect start to home life post stroke.

Back into my armchair I slumped and with live sport back on the TV, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the rest of the weekend. One of the necessities of stroke recovery is accepting that your brain – as well as body – needs to heal in the form of sleep. I have therefore become accustomed to afternoon naps, which I would have felt incredibly guilty about before all of this happened, however now it is a part of daily life. Although, napping is easier said than done with a 2-year-old rampaging around the house. A sound piece of advice I received from one of the physios in hospital, was to download a mindfulness app which means I can listen to forest raindrops and waves crashing on the beach to send me into my afternoon slumbers.

Waking up from these is always tricky as the aches and pains are emphasised after not moving for a sustained period of time. I can now understand why some elderly people struggle to have the motivation to get up and work hard at their recovery after a stroke. When I have woken up, one of my highlights has been taking off my pyjama T-shirt in the form of a 1990’s wrestler who is about to start a street brawl: my right-hand grabbing hold of the top behind the scruff of my neck and then pulling it off over my head.

Not quite me waking up from my afternoon naps – but close.

So much has happened since we have started writing this particular blog post because we have to stagger the writing across the week. But we have nearly caught up with ourselves and I can’t wait to fill you in on current life at home and the improvements that I am making in physio very soon.

A Welcome to the Staples Crew

Today’s post follows a lovely morning stroll/wheel down the road to Sandbanks café at Yelland Power Station, where Beth and I sat in the car park drinking a molten lava latte and I devoured a bacon roll that reminded me of 5-a-side tournaments of summers gone by (where the roll could not contain the amount of meat falling out the side).

Making the most of Henry-free mornings while he’s at the childminders!

The content to come is based around my days spent in hospital before returning home. Then I’m hoping to be up to date and my blogs will become updates of my progress at home rather than anecdotes of those first memorable moments post stroke. As a teacher, who wants to keep everything organised and up to date, it was ridiculously hard to accept that these memories would have to be stored on my phone and not blurted onto a blog post at the time of them happening. My brain just could not concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes at a time, which is still the case hence the reason these updates are so sporadic.

Talking of those memories and following on from ‘bottle gate’ and my constant staring at my toes, I go back to a time lying in bed watching the clock tick by and trying to respond to the stream of messages and well wishes. All of these were amazing and still to this day give me the motivation to get back stronger than before. One of the hardest things in hospital with the current pandemic was not having any contact with visitors in to the ward. Therefore group chats and FaceTime became a godsend. WhatsApp was much easier, especially with my accessibility mode on my phone allowing the words to be magnified to a ridiculous degree. FaceTime was more difficult because my family have always been emotional wrecks and so any face to face contact usually resulted in mini meltdowns on both sides of the phone. Not out of fear or sadness, but just an outpouring of emotion (I’m not sure what emotions because most of the time words became blubbers and usually resulted in early hang-ups). I was told by the therapists that this was completely normal as my brain now has no filter on emotions – not that it did before, but now I have an excuse to cry all the time!

The beauty of being in a ward, like Staples at NDDH, however, is that you come across all types of different people – most of whom you would never encounter in normal day to day life. Being on a stroke specific ward meant that obviously I was the youngest by at least 50 years but from my golfing days, I have never had trouble speaking with people of a more senior age. Next door to me was an ex-Rhodesian army general who had stories to tell of fights against Mugabe where he was blown up and shot at. Not only was he one of the nicest and most welcoming men you could meet, but it gave me a chance to have real-life conversations, even if most of the time it was around the antics of another fellow ward member, Chris, who would later go on to become my best buddy in these strange times. We would become so close that he would go on to write down his contact details on a slip of nurse’s paper and proceed to ask for mine in return, which I gladly gave him. Little did I know when he was discharged 2 days later, he would proceed to phone me mid Cheers on Channel 4 (which starts at 6:30 as those early birds among you would know) and we would have a conversation about how he was doing outside.

As well as the interesting fellow patients I met, the staff I came across also provided much entertainment with their wonderful ways. One of the highlights being a Health Care Assistant (HCA) who decided that Chris was in desperate need of a lock down trim so, following a morning wash, she proceeded to get out a pair of scissors that looked like they’d been stolen from the stationery cupboard in my school. She wrapped some towels around his shoulders, while he was sat in his chair, drinking his morning coffee with 2 sugars and what followed was one of the strangest moments I’ve ever seen in a hospital – a work of art to Chris’ mop-top which transformed him into an elderly Mark Foster.

Mark Foster: my ten health upgrades for the over-40s
Chris after his free NHS haircut.

Not wanting to miss out on this action, Patrick (our army general) proceeded to beckon the lovely HCA and request an eyebrow trim. I thought I would save my mullet trimming for when I got out so I stuck to my regular beard and tash shave which I just about managed to do sat in my chair with my one working hand.

Those regular followers may be wondering what happened to the bowel movements post bed pan fiasco. A brief discussion with the nurses on duty resulted in me being prescribed some Senna tablets to aid with the unclogging (something I’ve never suffered from before). And so, the time came to jump on the commode and transport me to said throne. The speed at which that banana came out was reminiscent of a young Ayrton Senna weaving around the corners of Monaco. A thorough cleaning was needed after this and discussions with the HCAs meant it was a good time to sit in the shower seat and experience my first post-stroke shower. This was much more enjoyable than the flannel washes whilst lying in my bed that I had been used to.

Wallpaper I made with the one and only Ayrton Senna : formula1
The Brazilian would have been proud.

Following my afternoon shower, it was almost time for one of the incredible physio sessions I would receive whilst under the care of the therapy team, which I’m still taking part in at home on a daily basis. Today’s objective was assisted walking. I was wheeled from my bay to the entrance of the gym and, with the help of the wonderful therapists, hauled to my unsteady feet. Following expert guidance, I tentatively took my first steps whilst gripping on to the bar for dear life! This is what it looked like:

My starting point.

Second Album Syndrome

This is the one I’ve been dreading because the first one is just what happened and a recount is something you can’t really get wrong. Also being the person I am and not wanting to stop because I want to let people know what is going on. So much to tell and so little energy! I will start with the first few nights in my new home away from home. It may be all over the shop as although I know this shouldn’t be a burden being the perfectionist I am I Want to get it written as quickly as possible so it is still fresh. This blog started after one of the many unsavoury moments I have had in here since the first night. Texting Beth which has also made me reminisce about when we first got together and couldn’t stop snap chatting even though we had nothing to say has made me realise even more that she is the most incredible person I know and I am so lucky to be able to have her in my life. I knew before I came in that I was an appreciative person for what my life contained and I will continue to do that with even more gusto moving forward. Ask Beth about how many times I used to say “This is great isn’t it!” And hopefully she will back me up.

Which brings me to the unsavoury part because that was all quite lovely. So there I was, sat up in the chair waiting for another rehab session potentially on the shoulder after some more squatting and walking from this morning before low and behold the great surge of I’m going to wee myself comes over me and my bottle work which has improved dramatically was too slow to react hence leaving me sat in my chair with wee dribbling everywhere (I have to add at this point I went for the bottle on the table and held it underneath the dripping chair). I had previously in the day tried being a hero and raising myself up enough with my good arm before pulling my Bideford shorts down enough to be able to get Roger the todger out and into the open cardboard bottle lid that resembles something like a cast for a dog’s damaged paw as my cousin Chris so eloquently put it – however in doing this I smashed back down into the chair and donked the bad elbow on the chair arm. A mini setback that is a recurring theme throughout the long days in here but they don’t get me down too much because I know that there is always a way around a problem like that. Photo below to provide more to the imagination not that anyone needs to be thinking about Roger anymore. So off I go into the shower which is a relief because it stops me smelling like an old man for at least half an hour.

Roger’s new habitat

So back to the first night, and for any of you film lovers out there many a minute was spent staring at my toe like Uma Thurman in the opening of Kill Bill shouting ‘wiggle your big toe’ in my brain. To snap me out of this, doctors and nurses were coming in to my cubicle with their COVID masks on meaning all I could do was stare into their eyes/soul. One of the first visits was to check my swallowing ability as, for the previous hour I had been sucking on a wet sponge stuck to the end of a lolly stick. In the test they offered me a banana which I proceeded to gobble up in no time at all. Mini victory… nil by mouth no more! What a relief after smelling the lunches waft through a few hours earlier.

Uma Thurman had footballer’s toes too

Whirring around my brain throughout all of this was how potentially I could be at home if only I’d taken the medication suggested by the doctors. The reason I had stopped taking the aspirin I was prescribed was, initially, due to the fact I was bruising after every football game and then just because I got lazy and didn’t chase up my prescriptions. I was put on this medication about a year ago after having 3 TIAs in the space of a brief 15 minutes (mini strokes) and with subsequent testing, which lasted over a year, they found a hole in my heart – which had been there since birth. It was only a month ago I had arranged to have the surgery to close the gap done over the summer holidays (to avoid interfering with term time). I will never know whether this would have prevented the stroke however it is something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life – the uncertainty – which has been tough to come to terms with. However a small glimmer of hope was that the doctors said it may not have stopped the stroke from happening in the first place because it was so big.

Back to my cubicle and the fear of loneliness and dependency on others kicked in as my bowels started to rumble like on the morning of the event. People that know me will know this is a normal occurrence. Apologies to readers who may be squeamish with details of lavatorial events! Beckoning the nurse via the call button after my 1 banana meant the time had come again. However knowing my surroundings – I just couldn’t let it go. So they proceeded to bring in the bed pan of doom and hoist me onto it. Obviously the urge was not sufficient or it could have been my bony coccyx causing me unrivalled pain and preventing me from filling said pan. So an awkward discussion followed with one of the many undervalued and criminally understaffed nurses to lift me back off the pan and into my itchy bed (not itchy because of the sheets but my inability to wiggle and scratch – the privilege of any human on the planet pre stroke).

It was at this point, to add to the worry of not being able to empty my bowels, I realised a contraption on both my legs was pumping away squeezing my calves and quads. I would later find out that these were DVT leg pumps to increase circulation in my non-mobile legs. They would become an ongoing nuisance throughout the nights in hospital.

I’m not sure how to finish this one but here it goes. Credit to Bryan for the idea of a blog (who knew it would blow up like this). And finally to Beth for giving me some respite from typing as this blog post was finished at home in the comfort of my armchair. Don’t worry though there is a lot more hospital content to come over the next few blogs although I can’t promise it will involve less toilet humour.

The Journey Begins-ish

I write this first post with a warning over typo’s and nonsense as the old noggin does get a bit more fatigued easily these days staring at an iPad screen! I will endeavour to keep up to date but as stroke recovery goals go it is not a priority. I say -ish in the title as the main event actually happened a week ago yesterday. Heading to the garage to collect some old trainers to head to school in because my others were still soaked from a recent Instow beach puddle splashing extravaganza with my two favourite people. I hit the deck like a sack of potatoes and started to get a bit worried about what was going on. Henry was outside as well and my first thought was to shout “Don’t run in the road!” luckily Beth was already rumbling that something was a bit odd and came out to see what was going on. At that point I think I remember her saying stay still and don’t get up – I’m ringing an ambulance which I was devastated at because today at school was roast day! I also knew as I hit the deck that I hadn’t managed to get my morning throne trip under my belt. Hence me asking Beth when I was on the floor whether she could take me to said lavatory. Needless to say that was the least of our worries when reality hit that this was something serious. We won’t go into detail about what state the drive was left in after I had been delivered into the back of the ambulance. Only detail I am going to add was that I was wearing my cream chinos which Beth hasn’t binned for some peculiar reason. Maybe to frame as a memento and look back on this crazy time. So we then move into the world of the abyss where vague recollections of discussions between Barnstaple and Derriford circulated around my head. Air ambulance was mentioned and I remember thinking Henry will be in his element! Lots of incredible NHS staff who I had forgotten but then met on the ward a few days later on my travels to the rehab gym were so supportive and talkative in the back of the ambulance. I vaguely remember discussions around odds and it was only later in that day speaking to Beth that I found out there was a choice made around something called thrombolysing which meant de-clotting the stroke and where 1 in 3 are successful and there is a 1 in 20 chance it could be fatal. These staff are unbelievable having to make daily decisions like that around real people and their lives at home in the back of an ambulance or an A&E ward. And I think teaching is tough sometimes. So we then move on to where I sort of came around and have minor recollections up in the ward I’m sat in now. Lots of memories have blurred into one but hopefully I can give you a snippet of life in here after a stroke! Some wonderful nurses and doctors came into my cubicle and asked lots of questions which majority of the time I failed but no worries. It then hit me something big had happened. I couldn’t feel my left arm or leg and could barely raise my head off the pillow. I knew through all of this though I was in the best hands possible. Weirdly I didn’t feel scared at what had happened or the future it just felt like I was in a dream or outer body experience. Occasional moments there were frustrations at not being able to comprehend what was going on. Still up to now a week post incident I struggle to picture where the future will go but all the time I stay positive and do as much as I can to get home and be the man I can be for Beth, Henry and bump (not forgetting Jess Cat).