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.
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.
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!
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 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.