Sarah was 18 when she had a stroke during an English lesson at school in 2009. It’s fair to say that our lives changed from that day forward. There was no warning beforehand, Sarah was reading aloud in class when she started to feel sick and then found that she couldn’t speak.
Fortunately her classmates and teacher called an ambulance immediately, which meant that Sarah was able to get to our local hospital within the hour. The stroke consultant was on leave that day, but was telephoned at home and came in especially to supervise Sarah’s scan and administer clot-busting drugs. Sarah was the youngest patient he’d ever treated. Since then, we realise that it’s relatively rare to suffer a stroke at 18, but it can happen to anyone – babies, children, young people and the elderly.
What followed was a few days of life or death, then 5 months of hospital and rehab, in geriatric wards. Movement and swallow reflex improved within weeks but the aphasia was the biggest disability of all. At first Sarah said nothing and understood little. She had a vacant expression and lost all inhibitions. When a friend came to visit in hospital, she uttered ‘Oh my God!’ She’s cured, I thought! But it was only a reflex reaction and didn’t mean that her speech was returning. I knew nothing about aphasia then. Aphasia has affected every aspect of Sarah’s life, socialising and friendships, communicating online and off, work prospects and earning potential.
It has been a long journey back to Sarah. When she came home we put post-it notes on objects to help to relearn the names. I even had to explain what a pie was. The aphasia affected reading, writing, numbers, colour recognition as well as speech. Sarah has received many hundreds of hours of speech therapy, including six weeks of intensive therapy in Florida last summer, which proves that significant progress can be achieved years after a brain injury. We used a crowd-funding site to enable us to go to Florida for the course and we are so thankful for the support from friends, family and total strangers.
We recorded some YouTube videos charting Sarah’s progress from 9 months post-stroke. At that time there were very few videos online of younger people with aphasia. It was principally to show us the improvements she was making, as it was so gradual. I didn’t have a tripod, we balanced my camera on top of an upturned washing basket. Since then, those videos have been used in universities around the world and put us in contact with many people who live and work with aphasia. Our YouTube channel has over a million views.
There is no doubt that aphasia can change lives and rob people of skills that they may have taken for granted. However, Sarah says that her life is better in many ways now. She has devoted a lot of her time to support other young people with aphasia and founded a support group in our town. Although her plans to study biomedical science at university have been abandoned, Sarah works part time as a science technician in a local school and maintains a positive attitude. Reading and writing are still difficult, smart phone apps have helped Sarah to be more independent and her confidence has returned.
Sarah was awarded The National Life After Stroke award for Volunteering by The Stroke Association, in 2014.