Lightning  Strikes  Twice

STROKES: The introductory section to the book.

Why is it that these devastating events are called ‘strokes’? Although ‘stroke’ is one of those words with many meanings (at the stroke of one o’clock, a mark on something like a piece of paper or whiteboard, a particular style of swimming and so on)  the first thing the hearer thinks of is a gentle, caressing touch. There is nothing gentle or caressing about a cerebrovascular accident or insult, to use the medical terms.

In fact, the use of the English word in the sense of ‘apoplexy’ dates back to the seventeenth century. It originally had connotations of the ‘stroke of God’s hand’. This may not go down well with those of us who are agnostic, but it is at least understandable. Pioneers of medicine like Hippocrates and Galen were familiar with the concept, knowing it as ‘thunder-struck’ or ‘planet-struck’.

There are in fact two main kinds of medical stroke. Eighty-five percent occur when a person has a clot or other obstruction causing an interruption of the supply of blood to the brain. A smaller number (I belong to this category myself) suffer various kinds of bleeding in the brain’s tissues. Either occurrence can cause damage, usually severe, often fatal. If you want fancier terms, the first kind are called ‘ischaemic strokes’ and the latter ‘haemorrhagic strokes’. Sometimes, a blockage to the blood supply can clear itself before any lasting damage is done. ‘Episodes’ (to use the unfortunate technical term) of this kind are called ‘transient ischaemic attacks’ or ‘TIAs’. These are popularly, though not accurately, referred to as ‘mini-strokes’.  

You can get lost in these medical and etymological matters. If you’ve survived a stroke or someone close to you has, the primary questions that will be in your mind are ‘what do I do now?’ and ‘how can life go on from here?’ Although I’ve had two brain haemorrhages followed by two long periods of recovery, I wouldn’t presume to think I can tell you the answers to these questions. Every stroke is different, in exactly the same way as every individual is different. The brain is hugely complex. Science doesn’t pretend to know everything about it. I’m not even a scientist.

It would be pointless, not to say disrespectful, for me to attempt to lay down a series of homilies like ‘you’ve got to keep fighting back’, ‘don’t forget your sense of humour’, ‘accept that your life is going to change’. You’d, rightly, never forgive me if all I did was utter this sort of cliché. All I can do with honesty is to set down some of my experiences since March, 2000, in the hope someone may benefit from them, even if only slightly. This is my sole aim with this book.

The story is by no means all dark. If I have learned anything since the Millennium, it is how ready to be helpful, concerned, and considerate in a non-patronising way almost everyone has been. I have been given an object lesson in the finest qualities of human nature. It wasn’t a lesson I sought and certainly not one I’d have had the courage to take if it had been offered to me, yet it is not one I can say I regret.

The formal dedication to my family at the front of this book is richly deserved. No-one has helped me more than they. Yet I must also thank friends, other relatives, former colleagues, medical professionals of all kinds, acquaintances and even a large number of complete strangers, some of whose names I never found out, for the genuine kindness they have shown to me.

The only other thing I want to mention in this introduction is luck. My own experiences have been lucky ones. Some may prefer something more religious in tone; I prefer the neutral ‘luck’.

It may sound odd to think of what happened to me on two occasions as ‘lucky’, especially when the doctors could find no reason why I should have had either haemorrhage in the first place. Yet everything could have been so much worse. I could have been struck down when one of my sons was sitting an important examination or when I was behind the wheel of a car. The incident itself could have been worse. I could have, for example, been rendered immobile. I might have stepped off the planet altogether. I’ve been fortunate enough to make one reasonable recovery and am (I hope) still in the process of making a second. Yes, I’ve worked hard to repair my life but must acknowledge that luck has been on my side.

I hope it’s on the side of you or your beloved, too.