We had so much fun in the preceding weeks. High tea to celebrate their 39th wedding anniversary, a game drive, a Michael Jackson show and an eventful dinner on the last Saturday night. It was the beginning of the December 2019 holidays and we were excited and gearing up for a much-needed break. Our upcoming vacation to the coast was something we had been talking about and planning for months. But everything changed on the morning of 17th December 2019. Not just for our holidays, but for all our lives. It started with a fall. Followed by a series of small strokes. And in a week, my fully-able Father was completely bed-bound and unable to perform the simplest of tasks. 

What is a stroke?

During the week of 28 October to 3 November, World Stroke Week is commemorated. A stroke occurs “when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, and without blood which carries oxygen, brain cells can be damaged or die. Depending on which part of the brain is affected and how quickly the person is treated, the effects of a stroke can be devastating to a person’s body, mobility, speech, as well as how they think and feel.” 

There are different types of strokes. A ‘Transient Ischaemic Attack’ or TIA, is a mini-stroke that presents with the normal stroke symptoms but is less severe and recovery can occur in 24-hours without permanent damage. There is also a stroke caused by a brain hemorrhage, however, only 2 in 10 strokes are caused by bleeding. The most common type of stroke is one that is caused by “a small blood clot [that] may form in a blood vessel and then block an artery in the brain. Sometimes this blood clot may develop in another part of your body, and then travel in the blood vessels to the brain and get stuck, blocking the blood vessel.”

In my Dad’s case, he suffered a series of strokes caused by a number of blood clots that formed in his heart and travelled to his brain. This affected both his right and left sides of his brain. It impacted his ability to walk, to sit upright and he could not move around. He had limited use of his right hand and his speech was impacted. Fortunately, for my Dad, his mind and memory remained intact and as sharp as ever. However, the effects of the stroke took away his ability to show emotion, so he did not laugh and smile like he used to.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa, the common signs and symptoms of a stroke include:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in face, arm or leg (most often on one side of the body) 
  • Sudden loss of speech, difficulty speaking or understanding speech 
  • Sudden confusion 
  • Sudden loss of vision 
  • Sudden severe, unusual headache 
  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance and trouble with walking

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa advises that the acronym FAST is a simple way to remember the signs of a stroke.

F – Face drooping

A – Arm weakness

S – Speech difficulty

T – Time to call emergency medical services 


FACE: Ask the person to show their teeth or smile and see if one side of the face droops or does not move as well as the other side does. 

ARMS: Ask the person to lift both arms up and keep them up and see if one arm does not move or drifts downward when extended. 

SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a short sentence (e.g. “it is a sunny day in Cape Town”) and see if the person uses the correct words without slurring. 

TIME: Make a careful note of the time of onset of symptoms and call for help urgently if you spot any one of these signs.

Know the warning signs of a stroke.

Causes of a stroke

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa state that “10 people suffer a stroke in South Africa every hour”. The unfortunate element of a stroke is that anyone, at any time, is at risk. There are controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. Some uncontrollable risk factors include age (strokes become more likely as you age), sex (pre-menopausal females are less at risk) and family history. Controllable risk factors are the factors that you have the power to change. “Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented by healthy living and medical treatment. Even small improvements in each of these can make a difference.” Healthy living includes, but not limited to, exercise, healthy eating, reduced stress levels, no smoking and alcohol consumption in moderation.

Life after a stroke

My Dad spent 80 days in hospital before he came home. The person who went into hospital and the person who returned home were two very different people. 

Recovery from a stroke can be both mentally and physically demanding, not only for the patient but for their loved ones as well. The recovery process can be long and may include rehabilitation. This could include various professionals such as “doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, speech therapists, psychologists, and social workers”. The purpose of rehabilitation is for the patient to regain normality in their lives. It can yield positive results if done effectively, but requires a great amount of patience.

Recovery from a stroke can be both mentally and physically demanding.

The recovery process is difficult for the patient as sometimes they have to re-learn simple tasks and their lives may have changed drastically and indefinitely. The recovery process is difficult for the family because helplessly watching your loved one suffer is pain on another level. In my experience, the best thing you can do is to be there for each other. In whatever way you can. It will be the thing you seek comfort in on both ends.

My Dad lost his battle, 8 months after that fateful December day. His passing was not from the stroke itself but exacerbated by it. He fought bravely right to the end. It’s unfortunate that a stroke can happen to anyone. But it is up to us to take care of ourselves as best as we can. It’s a gift that we can give ourselves in the here and now, and it’s one that you definitely won’t regret giving.

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