We think of doctors as all-knowing, healthy, reliable, confidants. In our stage of life, we rely on our doctors for health advice more and more – we think of them as superheroes.
Well I was a doctor, a ‘superhero’, and I had a stroke.
In my working life I was a neuro-radiologist. I spent my days looking at medical images, scans and diagnosing patients with conditions in the nervous system, spine, brain and neck, including stroke.
I knew so much about stroke, about the body and the brain, but never did I expect I would become a three-time stroke survivor myself – or that I would be treated in the very hospital where I worked.
I am sharing my story as part of Stroke Week because none of us are superheroes. We must all pay attention to our health and make healthy choices, if not only for ourselves but for the people we love.
Our stroke risk increases as we age, and men are at greater risk of stroke than women.
Why is the risk greatest for men? Because we don’t look after ourselves enough. Men are more likely to have high blood pressure than women, we drink more than women, we eat poorly and we don’t get enough exercise.
There is a common myth there is nothing you can do to reduce your risk. As a survivor and a health professional, I am here to tell you this is not the case. Up to 80 per cent of strokes can be prevented by making good health decisions and looking after yourself.
For me, stroke first hit when I was 54. You would think when I developed a severe ongoing headache, I would be the first person to hear the alarm bells, but I didn’t.
While it wasn’t the typical F.A.S.T. (Face.Arms.Speech.Time) warning signs of stroke, I should have paid better attention to what my body was trying to tell me. Rather than seeing a doctor, I put myself to bed with self-diagnosed flu.
Days later, the headache still wouldn’t shift, but I was determined to get back to work. I had an important conference in Taiwan where I was to present a session on stroke – the irony.
While in Taiwan my headache still raged. I gave my lectures, but did little else for the week. It became clear I was suffering from more than the flu.
Once I was back home in Australia, I had a brain scan, which confirmed I’d had a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which means a blood vessel had leaked in my brain.
Fortunately, I’d had what I term a leak rather than a more serious bleed, so my prognosis was excellent. I have seen stroke change lives in an instant, not only for the individual, but for their family too.
However, this did not happen to me. It was certainly a scare, but after four weeks of rest I was able to resume my life and return to work.
But my stroke journey was not over.
Eleven years later, my wife and I had journeyed to the Netherlands for a wedding. We were being typical tourists taking a walk and looking around when I had an episode of intense pins and needles in my left hand. It only lasted about a minute, but this time I knew it was likely to be a mini stroke or TIA (transient ischaemic attack).
I didn’t waste any time and went to hospital straight away. The doctors quickly diagnosed me and changed my medication. I had no further symptoms. Once again, I was one of the lucky ones. Life went on and I managed my stroke risk through medication and lifestyle choices.
But then three years ago my luck almost ran out.
I was due to have a skin cancer removed and was advised to stop taking my medication three days before the surgery, which I did. But the night before the operation, I developed pins and needles in my left hand.
They were identical to those I had during my mini stroke. I also had pins and needles around my mouth and issues with my vision. I’d lost about 25 per cent of my sight. This time, my symptoms did not disappear. It was clearly a stroke.
My wife rang triple zero (000) and I was taken to the hospital, my hospital, the hospital I knew so well, by ambulance. I won’t lie, I was frightened, but I knew I was in the best hands possible.
It was at night, so I arrived quickly and the stroke team took over.
A brain scan revealed a clot was stopping blood from flowing to the part of the brain primarily responsible for processing visual information.
The doctors didn’t mess around. I was given a clot-busting drug and within 15 minutes my vision had returned. The clot had dissolved and blood flow to my brain had returned.
I really am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky because I know with the right medication and lifestyle choices I can control my stroke risk.
I am lucky because I know the signs of stroke and the importance of getting to hospital quickly.
I am lucky because fast treatment has saved my life and left me with minor post-stroke challenges.
Mostly, I am lucky because I continue to lead an amazing life, spending it with my wife, family and friends.
Some people get the toughest of deals after just one stroke. They can lose their independence and their ability to walk, talk and even feed or dress themselves. They have to rely on their loved ones to care for them.
This Stroke Week (September 3-9) please take the opportunity to look at your health. The theme is Every step counts towards a healthy life, encouraging you to fit healthy habits into your day to reduce your stroke risk.
Visit your GP for a health check, take advantage of a free digital health check at your local pharmacy and learn more about stroke and the signs of stroke. We need to look after ourselves – not only for ourselves but those we love. None of us are superheroes.
National Stroke Week from September 3-9 is the Stroke Foundation’s annual awareness campaign, encouraging us to take action to prevent and be aware of stroke.
Activities around the country will include information stalls, morning teas, talks from stroke survivors, health checks, personal or team challenges, and fundraising.
More than 80 per cent of strokes can be prevented by managing risk factors and living a healthy lifestyle. Talk to your doctor and take charge of your health.
- Eat healthily
- Stay active
- Be smoke free
- moderate alcohol intake
- Visit your doctor for a health check to manage blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and atrial fibrillation (irregular heart beat)
What is a stroke?
Stroke can change lives in an instant. It attacks the brain – the human control centre. It happens when oxygen supply to the brain is cut off by a blood clot or a blood vessel rupture.
- More than 56,000 strokes will be experienced by Australians this year – that is one stroke every nine minutes
- Stroke is one of Australia’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability
- Stroke kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer
- Around 60 per cent of stroke survivors are aged over 65
- 65 per cent of stroke survivors suffer a disability that impedes their ability to carry out daily living activities unassisted
The FAST test
The FAST test is an easy way to recognise and remember the signs of stroke. Using the FAST test involves asking these simple questions:
Face – Check their face. Has their mouth drooped?
Arms – Can they lift both arms?
Speech – Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you?
Time – Time is critical. If you see any of these signs, call 000 straight away
Details – strokefoundation.org.au