It started with an innocuous drooping of the right side of my face late one Tuesday evening in January this year. Whilst talking to Amy, my wife, I suddenly couldn't match the thoughts in my head to the necessary lip movements to make the words. Amy had the intuition to ask if I was having a stroke, I said "there's no way, I'm too young and healthy". When she questioned again, I uttered the immortal words, "I should know, I'm a doctor".
Painless and gentle was the only way to describe it, so much so I thought little of the event at the time. I was tired and perhaps overstressed. Pressures of work and maintaining a life balance had perhaps been taking their silent toll. However my first consideration was that this was a 'Bell's palsy,' which involves a virus in the nerve endings in the face causing them to go 'offline' for a while. This can be brought on by stress and not looking after yourself so I felt it fitted what was happening. As it was late and I had to get up early the next day for work I thought I'd sleep on it and reassess in the morning.
It was only during breakfast the next day did the severity of the situation hit. Reading up about the symptoms over breakfast did I see that if your eyebrows were still working (as mine were), this was far more serious. The potential option list read Brain Tumour, Multiple Sclerosis and Stroke. I remember leaving for work quicker than usual that day.
Four days, one brain scan and battery of tests later at the hospital in which I work, I had been diagnosed with an embolic stroke. I am 34, regularly keep fit, recently married, a junior doctor and have no risk factors. This wasn't meant to happen to me.
The immediate aftermath of the diagnosis was a proverbial rollercoaster of emotion. An odd combination of a doctor's curiosity about the disease process and a strange inability to properly think. The shock, interest and well wishes of the outside world to the suffocating moments spent on my own wondering if another would happen again. The sense of bafflement that this could have happened to me to the painful realisation that this had happened to me. One memory I have vividly is being struck by how life can literally change in a heartbeat, even when merely lying in bed. While I knew this to be true from my professional work, I had never felt it in regards to my own personal life and health.
I had gone into work a doctor on the Monday and returned home a patient on Tuesday. The transition was seamless. One day I was helping others, the next I was needing help myself.
The experience and ongoing recovery is far too great to condense into a short piece such as this, however one of the greatest lessons I feel it has taught me so far is something that no amount of study in Medical School could have prepared me more.
That being ill can be, and often is, a profoundly lonely process.
While we study and work hard to understand the objective reality of disease with its variety of pathology and manifestations, this means that we can only ever understand what is happening with half the information. The other half is what that disease means to the patient themselves, relative to the life they have lived.
A huge element that defined my own recovery from the stroke was the 'post stroke fatigue.' The brain has to literally re-wire itself in order to compensate for what is lost. I lost an estimated 50million neurons despite this being a small stroke.
The tiredness was like something I've never experienced. Boiling an egg became an exercise in total concentration, talking to people could only last around ten minutes before I'd feel shattered. Some days, getting out of bed was almost impossible. I had been a regular marathon and ultra-marathon runner only one month previous.
Becoming a patient, but also retaining the identity of a doctor allowed for a duality of perspective throughout. One part of me was able to step back and observe and be interested by what was happening. Another was the emotional side of me that was living and breathing the tough new reality I found myself in. What I remember hardest about the experience was the tough truth that no one could really understand what I was going through. Some people really tried but when it came down to it, no one could quite appreciate the subtleties of what this meant to me. Illness and recuperation became a very lonely place, as a huge part of the healing process I realised, was to accept this and forgive it in others. Some days were so much harder than others.
The desire to simply be listened to is very powerful. One thing I strongly learnt was how suffocating it could be to be given answers such as 'don't worry, you'll be ok' or 'it's happening for a reason' when others perhaps didn't know what else to say.
Amongst many things, this has so far taught me the value of just being there to listen and support, without the need to necessarily control the situation and only offer solutions. Something that as often over-stretched doctors we do not always feel we have time for, but the value of which can never be underestimated.
Something that I hope to take back into both my own personal life and professional practice, with both loved ones and future patients.
(As part of the healing process I took to writing about experiences and have since self-published the account on Amazon - Brushstrokes - Thoughts, poems and reflection on having had a Stroke at the age of 34)