How the UK National Health Service saved my life

I’m a Brit but I have lived and worked in the USA for nearly 30 years but I had a vacation home in the UK next to my wife’s sister which we visited at least once a year. Three years ago my sister-in-law suffered a stroke but my wife was unable to visit her as she, herself, was recovering from surgery.

So I decided to visit her and help her daughter who was having to cope with her husband working overseas and I had time because I was retired.

I didn’t know anything about strokes and their treatment so I picked up a couple of books on the way to the airport and read them on the plane.

Her stroke was severe. She was paralyzed on her right side, lost her speech and had limited vision. She was basically unable to communicate. After three weeks in the special stroke unit at the hospital and after six weeks rehab there was no sign she was recovering. We arranged for her to go into a care home.

By this time my wife, her sister, had recovered from her surgery and had joined me in the UK.

I was about to discover the benefits of the marvellous Nation Health Service. The first responder paramedic arrived in about five minutes from his base five miles away. He did vital signs checks and agreed with my tentative diagnosis so called an ambulance to take me straight to the stroke unit, some 25 miles away.

Once there I was quickly examined. As the symptoms had not worsened, I was kept in under observation. But when I got out of bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, my right leg would not work so I pressed the bell for help.

In seconds a small army of people was there to take me first for a CT scan and then to a bay where a drip was fitted, blood samples were taken and a doctor did whatever doctors do.

The stroke unit nurse who had checked me in was with me the whole time, holding my hand and reassuring me that I was in the best possible hands. I must have been given a sedative because the next thing I remember was waking up in a private room. The stroke nurse was still with me, holding my hand.

Those first few days were very confusing because although I seemed able to think clearly, I could not speak or understand what people were saying. I made sounds that I thought were speech but could not make myself understood. My heart nearly stopped when I looked around the room and saw several signs but I could not make any sense of what I knew to be words and sentences. I thought I could face anything but the thought of losing the ability to read was devastating. But I understood the concept of reading, my eyes seemed to be working and obviously, my cognition was unimpaired so, as I could do little else, I decided to teach myself to read using the signs in the room.

So. Where do I start? There was a sign above the door with a word on it and a little running man cartoon next to it. Exit! I could form the word in my head, so I knew what it was saying but it could have been any language. But I was aware who I was and where I lived so the chances are that it was English… or Latin! So my ability to discriminate language was still there. I KNEW that the English word for Exit was the same word in Latin. I realized I could name, in my head, the letters too. So why could I not read the word Exit? Then I saw the door in the mirror over the sink and suddenly it made sense. I was seeing the sign and the letters in mirror-image!

I was also beginning to understand what was being said. The first complete sentence I followed was in a conversation I overheard between a doctor and a physiotherapist: “I don’t think he will regain the ability to walk or talk.” I decided then and there to prove them wrong.

After a week or ten days, when they decided I would live, at least for a while, I began physiotherapy. I was put in a wheelchair and taken to the gym. After assessing me as to what worked and what didn’t I was persuaded to try to stand up. With the help of two physios I could! So for the next few days I attempted to “walk”. It was really to build the strength up in my good leg because they kept telling me that it was probably all I had. My right arm just came along for the ride.

A speech therapist gave me some exercises to practice with a mirror so the next time my wife visited I could say “I love you” and be understood. I also, by miming, I persuaded my wife to bring my iPhone although she wondered why someone who could not read, write or speak would need a phone.

But it was because I wanted the voice recognition of Siri to help me to learn to speak! A speech therapist for one hour three times a week was not going to be enough. So I would talk to Siri until she could understand me. Within a week I could say simple sentences. I also used the camera to video anybody that came within range speaking simple sentences. It’s amazing how quickly trying to say “good morning” and it coming out as “Gu Ngn”, then showing them what Siri thought I said for them to understand what I was trying to do. People would pronounce the words slowly while I videoed their mouths then I would video my own mouth trying to say the words then I would try again with Siri. The staff really helped, popping in to teach me another phrase whenever they had time.

My reading improved as well as I could read phrases as I tried to get Siri to understand me. I had one big problem though; I could only read one line at a time. It wasn’t capacity. If I turned the phone horizontal rather than verticle therefore getting more words on a line I could read the longer line. I jokingly said to myself “I’m missing the carriage return and line feed!” ( from my youth as a typewriter engineer).

That was the breakthrough. I consciously made an effort to return my eyes left and looked at the line below. My mirror reading I had overcome but when I reached the end of the line I was looking to the right instead of the left for the next word.

After a few hours of practice, I was reading, slowly but fluently.

And I picked up a book.

By the time I was moved to the rehab centre in Market Harborough, where I was born, three weeks after my stroke, I was showing some semblance of reading, talking and walking, albeit dragging one leg and using a stick.

Then the serious rehab started. Every day I spent at least an hour in the gym, with exercises back in the ward too. The nursing assistants were a wonderful part of the team, becoming friends and gradually withdrawing assistance as I could do more. My speech had recovered well and all the visitors, many of whom I had not seen for 50 years, were the only speech therapy I needed.

After four weeks in the rehab centre I returned to my home, which had been prepared by the amazing NHS teams. They had turned the dining room into a fully equipped hospital room with electric adjustable bed and all the gadgets I could need. My downstairs bathroom had been changed to accommodate me, and as soon as I got home the team started to call. At least four times a week a pair of physiotherapists would treat me for an hour and an occupational therapist would come for at least an hour a week. At the end of six weeks of home treatment, I could do everything I could do before my stroke — but slower and sometimes differently.

I’ve been told by several healthcare professionals that my attitude has made such a difference. I’ve never given up. I try to do whatever task is given to me without protest. And I’ve accepted that complete recovery is not reasonably achievable but I’m going to fight for every bit that is.

I was able to fly to Vancouver for Christmas with my kids and on the way over I tried to list all the people who made this trip possible in less than a year after my stroke, but it is impossible to do. There have been so many people, with so many skills, from so many ethnicities.

I thank you all in the NHS, the best medical system in the world.

And the cost of all this at the point of treatment? £0.

It was all covered by my National Health Insurance that I had paid all my working life in the UK. The National Health Service (NHS) is the public healthcare provider in the UK. Established in 1948, it has been the cornerstone of healthcare in the UK ever since. The largely tax-funded NHS offers universal healthcare coverage to Britons, as well as legally resident foreigners and expats.

Three years on I still have physiotherapy, in UK, Canada and the US because its a journey. I still have some weakness in my right leg and my right hand both of which I will beat — eventually. But the quality of my life is much better than it was before my stroke. I’ve found a world where money is not the most important thing. Friendship and caring have taken its place.

I thank my family and friends who have continued to support me.
And I thank my wonderful wife without which I would not have been able to do any of this. She has told me from day 1 non-recovery is not an option.

Experienced, cynical, optimistic, geek, visionary. Hoping the first two don't get in the way of the rest.

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