Sue, now 53, is married and lives in the Cotswolds with her husband Nik. They have a son Edward, 18, and Sue has a son Charles, 23, from her first marriage, and a stepson Josh, 27.
I’m a pretty active person; I’ve always loved swimming, and eat quite healthily. So when I went to a routine doctor’s appointment and my blood pressure was very high, I wasn’t particularly concerned. My GP did suggest I wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours but a second doctor said I didn’t need to. High blood pressure runs in my family but we have no history of stroke, and at only 48, I didn’t think any more of it.
A few months later at work, I was typing and my left hand was hovering over keys but I couldn’t press them down. I thought it was odd but put it down to having a migraine and just took some painkillers and carried on working. I know now that that was probably a TIA – transient ischaemic attack, or mini stroke – which is caused by a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain. If I’d gone to A&E at that point, the stroke could have been prevented. But I try not to think like that.
The crucial three hours
I drove home, ate dinner and watched TV, then went to bed as normal. That night, I got up to go to the loo and, although I have no memory of this, my husband was woken up by the sound of my head banging against the shower cabinet. I was conscious but I couldn’t move and my face had dropped.
There is a golden time with stroke: you have to get someone to hospital within three hours. Thankfully, Nik knew immediately what had happened because his father had had a stroke. He lifted me on to the bed and called an ambulance. But when I heard him saying he thought I’d had a stroke, I thought, “He’s got it wrong – I’m too young.”
The paramedics arrived and I remember looking into Edward’s bedroom, seeing his worried face saying, “Where’s my mum going?” He was just 13 at the time, and it makes me cry just thinking about it.
The paramedic called ahead to the John Radcliffe, which was the only one of five nearby hospitals that offers a clot-busting drug called thrombolysis. Thanks to his and Nik’s quick thinking, I got there in time for them to administer it. When they injected the drug, my whole body was overwhelmed with a burning sensation. I was swearing my head off, and my nails were gripping into Nik’s arm. He was so calm, telling me not to panic – even though he’d been told that there was a chance the process could be fatal.
I was unconscious for three days. Doctors had to allow my brain to swell then go back down and I was closely monitored in case they needed to remove part of the skull. Luckily, they didn’t.
When I came round, Nik and my sister Jenny were there. Jenny said something to make me laugh and I heard Nik saying, “I’ve got my Sue back”. It made me realise he must have had a difficult few days.
The clot that caused the stroke was on the right side of the brain, so I was left-side affected. I couldn’t open my left hand or move my arm properly, and my leg had reduced mobility. I had a splint on my hand. And I needed a wheelchair, which was hard to accept – even though I was told it was temporary. But I was lucky in that my speech wasn’t affected.
I was at the John Radcliffe for two weeks, doing occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Then I was moved to Cheltenham General Hospital and spent 16 weeks on the stroke ward, where I was told I would probably recover about 80 per cent of my previous abilities. That was when it really sank in. I just broke down thinking about what my life could look like if I didn’t recover mobility.
But I’m stubborn and my attitude was, “I’ve been dealt this bad hand; all I can do is to get on with it.” I had a young family and I focused on two goals. One was to get home for Christmas. The other was that if I was in a wheelchair all the time, I’d have needed a lift at home, which would have cost £15,000. Every step I learned to walk was worth £3,000 off that lift!
I can’t begin to describe the relief and joy I felt when I was discharged in November. I’d missed so many things – including my older son leaving to go to university, which was heart-breaking.
But my mobility was still very badly affected and I was only entitled to one hour’s physio a week. I applied for, and got, a place at the Oxford Centre for Enablement. Having had 18 weeks away from my family, I was daunted at the prospect of another six, but I knew how much it would improve my life. I had physio and occupational therapy each day and slowly started to see improvement.
Stroke really stretches marriage vows, and we have certainly had a few ups and downs! Lots of relationships break up as a result but it has made ours stronger. We all spent a lot of energy to keep our family unit going and I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of my menfolk.
When I left the rehab centre, I found a trainer called Dan Fivey in Cheltenham who’s experienced at working with stroke survivors. Among other things, he introduced me to the “bionic leg”, an insole with electrodes that kick my leg into action – like RoboCop. It’s been brilliant at re-educating my gait.
I’ve worked really hard to get where I am and, five years on, I’m still working at it. Two years ago, I went back to work part-time. I still can’t open my left hand easily and I wear a splint; I also wear one on my left leg to reduce foot drop. I can drive, but I still walk with a stick and use a wheelchair on long walks and shopping trips. I don’t like the word disability – I think “less able” is better. My recovery is now at 85 per cent; my goal is to get as close to 100 per cent as I can.
One of my mantras is that I have kissed death – and I am hugging life. We celebrated my 50th in Barbados, where I went jet-skiing. I’ve gone horse riding and done indoor skydiving, and I’m planning a trip to the longest zip wire in Europe. I didn’t get to drop my oldest son at university but going to his degree ceremony was lovely. And when my youngest son started at Loughborough last year, I got to help him move in – and relished every moment.