A stroke; a life-threatening medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.
We’ve all heard of the condition. But what would you do if it happened to you?
Not likely at your age, right?
Well that is exactly what happened to 22-year-old Holly Allright, a third year university student at Bournemouth University; Holly lived an incredibly healthy, active lifestyle.“It was a normal Saturday Morning. I got up, made some healthy blueberry pancakes for breakfast and went to the gym with my friend and flatmate, Charlotte,” Holly explained.
This is where something incomprehensibly unpredictable happened.
“I’m really into my healthy eating and fitness. I was on the treadmill running 5km, something I do regularly. I suddenly felt extremely faint, pushed the emergency stop button and went over to Charlotte,” she recalls.
“This is when I collapsed onto the floor. All I remember is excruciating pain in my head. I didn’t want to make a fuss, and made Charlotte promise not to call an ambulance.
“In a difficult situation, she rang my mum for assistance.”
This is when alarms bells really started to ring for Holly’s mum Donna Allright, who was almost exactly 100 miles from Bournemouth at home in Buckinghamshire, and Charlotte.
All Holly could say was, “My head’s exploding! My head’s exploding!” What she was explaining was not far from the truth.
Holly went on, “I pretty much blacked out through all of this, but it was then that an ambulance was called. It took 45 minutes to arrive, and during this time an onlooker noticed I had no movement on my right side.
“I was taken to Bournemouth hospital where I had friends waiting for me, along with my boyfriend Lars.
“It was here where I had a scan on my head, and Lars was told I had a bleed on the brain. I was taken straight to Southampton Hospital, a specialised neurological unit.”
Although referred to as a ‘stroke’ with all the recognisable symptoms of your typical stroke victim, Holly had actually suffered an unusual form of stroke; a Subarachnoid Haemorrhage.
According to the NHS, this is normally caused by: “A brain aneurysm bursting. A brain aneurysm is a bulge in a blood vessel, caused by a weakness in the blood vessel wall”.
Holly, however, suffered something even rarer. An arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Almost always present at birth, as in Holly’s case, the NHS definition for an AVM is; “A specific term used to describe a tangle of blood vessels with abnormal connections between arteries and veins”.
This left Holly with potentially life-changing consequences.
“Initially, I was paralysed down my right side; from my face, down to my toe. I was in a hospital bed for two weeks before I felt a tingle in my finger.
“Slowly but surely I regained movement, one finger at a time, one day at a time. It was something new each day which was very exciting.
“I was in Southampton hospital for five weeks and underwent brain surgery. I had been in a daze since my incident, until the night before the surgery. A big red ‘X’ was marked on my head, to indicate which side to operate on.
“My head had to be shaved, and the operation meant the risk of paralysis and losing the movement I had regained down my right side was high. If this happens, it’s potentially permanent.”
Holly was incredibly lucky. The operation was a textbook success. She then went on to spend 11 weeks in the Amersham Neurological Rehab Unit, and is now back at home. She recently underwent an angiogram, which gave her the all clear.All of this is undeniably a harrowing experience for anyone to go through. Holly is fortunate, unlike many her physical scars are minimal and she has every intention of going onto lead the life she had always imagined.
However, for Holly this is the hard part. She looks physically fine. Mentally, it’s a different story.
“I spent one week in intensive care in Southampton after the surgery. It was like being in a spaceship. I couldn’t hold or operate a phone. The only source of information from the outside world was from people who came to visit me. That was hard.”
“It was after this, when I went to the rehab centre, that my anxieties really started to kick in. I had been institutionalised. Hospital was my safe place. Even the prospect of a day out to the coffee shop was daunting.
“That was part of the rehab process, slowly introducing you back to the ‘real’ world. My first visit home was an hour long, this increased gradually until I eventually was spending several nights at home,” said Holly.
For Holly this was hard. Wanting more than anything to go home and get back to normal, but in fact that was a frightening thought.
Everything is there for you in a hospital. If something was to happen you know it can easily and quickly be treated. There are rails to help with standing up and moving around, beds that lift you up and down.
“When I came out of hospital and went home, it mainly involved lots of rest to begin with, as I was exhausted. The first thing I wanted to do, however, was get my hair piece,” Holly explained.That was a big cause of anxiety for Holly. She felt having a partly shaved head attracted attention to her, something she didn’t want. Also, having long luscious hair is something that makes you feel innately ‘girly’. Losing that must be hard.
Holly got a hairpiece to cover this up, and help her feel back to normal. She explained this helped a lot with her anxieties. But there were still more.
“I know I have been given the all clear, and that is a huge relief, but I cant help thinking ‘what else?’. I had a brain haemorrhage. That is something I could never have predicted, and it makes you scared as to what else could happen at any moment.
“It’s like every anxiety I have ever had has been heightened five levels. I’m scared to go the supermarket. The noise, the people, what if something happens to me? What if someone knocks into me? What if people are judging me? I find that hard.”
Holly also explains how she now finds being alone hard. And says this has really impacted relationships with all kinds of people.
“It’s difficult, I don’t want to hassle people. They have all already helped me so much, but I hate to be alone.
“But it’s a bit of a vicious circle. I want more than anything to see people; but I get scared of going out. I’m going to Bath with my boyfriend next week and I am so excited, but I have to remember I can’t do everything. It’s frustrating, because I feel back to normal but I just don’t have enough energy for things.”
“There was a stage where I was classed as disabled. I’m not anymore, and that should be great. But now I’m expected to do things, to act like a fit and healthy twenty two year old, but I can’t do everything. That is almost more difficult to accept.”
The Stroke Association explains that, “Approximately one third of stroke survivors report experiencing some emotional problems after their stroke.
“Usually they will fade away with time and you will begin to feel more like your old self. Some of the emotional changes that arise may be more persistent than others and you may need coping mechanisms to help you deal with them.
“One of the most common changes in emotion after a stroke is depression.”
No one can see what’s going on up there. That’s what Holly finds hard.
“People don’t realise how lucky they are. Of course everyone has moments of gratitude, but I feel it constantly. It’s frustrating because I feel the ‘meaning of life’ has been exaggerated for me. It’s given me a new perspective on life and I want everyone to feel as grateful as I do to be here”.According to the NHS, two of the most common psychological problems that can affect people after a stroke are:
“Depression – many people experience intense bouts of crying and feel hopeless and withdrawn from social activities;
“Anxiety – where people experience general feelings of fear and anxiety, sometimes punctuated by intense, uncontrolled feelings of anxiety (anxiety attacks).”
Holly isn’t the only young person to have gone through this. Stroke’s are unfortunately on the rise in younger people. The singer, Jessie J, suffered a minor stroke when she was just 18-years-old.
Holly was simply unlucky. She was born with AVM, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
But for the rest of us, there is a lesson to be learnt. As well as other causes, a subarachnoid haemorrhage can be caused by smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. Two habits that are unfortunately common in young people today.
The physical effects of a stroke are undeniably horrific. But it’s important to remember, and be sensitive to the emotional effects of someone that has gone through such an ordeal.
Being close to death is not something we expect at a young age, especially to be spending your 22nd birthday in a neurological rehab centre.
Holly, you are one seriously brave girl.
Featured Image by Donna Allright