Stroke survivors on managing at Christmas: ‘The little things that can annoy you the most. For me the lights blinking on the tree triggers something – I can’t even sit in the room with them’

So many little things go into making the perfect Christmas. Wrapping presents for loved ones, decorating the tree and cooking a traditional Christmas dinner to name but sadly, for those living with the after-effects of a chest, heart or stroke condition, the festive season is not always full of cheer.

round 17% of the population – which equates to 350,000 – here fit into this category, according to the NI Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) charity, and two of them are Co Tyrone man Bosco McShane and Belfast woman Linda Crooks.

The pair, as part of the charity’s Christmas ‘Little Things’ campaign, are speaking about their experiences to raise awareness of what it’s like to live with debilitating psychological symptoms and physical disabilities – which can become more pronounced during the festive celebrations.

Bosco, a 44-year-old dad-of-seven from Coalisland, found his life turned upside when he suffered a sudden bleed on the brain, or haemorrhagic stroke, in the run up to Christmas in 2019. Bosco says, “I was probably the last person you would have expected to have a stroke. I was always on the go, a dad of six and busy with my youth ministry work,” he recalls. “I don’t drink or smoke, and thought I was fighting fit. I had even run in the London Marathon in April and the Dublin Marathon in October just a couple of weeks beforehand.”

Understandably, Bosco’s stroke has had a massive impact on him and his family. He says, “It impacted the whole family. The kids felt it when I had to stay in hospital for a month after the stroke and it was tough for my wife Lynette worrying about me and having to take care of all the wee ones on her own.”

Even the most innocuous aspect of the festivities can pose issues for stroke sufferers like Bosco. “At Christmas especially, it’s the little things that are affected that can annoy you the most. For me the Christmas lights blinking on the tree triggers something – I can’t even sit in the room with them.

“Background noise is also more difficult. When you have all the children in playing with their toys and they’re making noise, it can be very tough for my head. I don’t want to be a ‘bah humbug’ and take down the lights or take away the toys, but sometimes I just have to avoid it or go and have a lie down which is hard.

“It affects the whole family that way – they’re watching you and trying to keep the noise down if I need to have a sleep during the day, which is tough.”

He continues: “During the Christmas season, going out and about shopping can be more difficult too. When I’m paying and having to count out my money, it takes a lot more concentration. You feel conscious that you’re taking a long time and holding up the queue. Those small things can be tough, which people don’t always realise, because on the outside you look okay.”

Fellow stroke survivor Linda was struck by the condition almost three years ago when she was 62. “The day I had my stroke was a perfectly normal Sunday. I started to feel a bit dizzy, so I went and lay down upstairs. When I woke up, I needed the bathroom, but I couldn’t get up,” she says.

“I was paralysed on my left side. I banged on the floor to alert my husband Allen, and when he came up, he knew straight away I was having a stroke.

“I was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and there it was confirmed I’d had an ischaemic stroke, which means there was a blockage in one of the arteries in my brain.”

After her stroke, Linda felt like her whole world had come to an end. “I was devastated and felt that I wasn’t me anymore and frustrated that I couldn’t do the things I used to do. I had to relearn to walk. When I first came home from hospital, I couldn’t do anything with my left hand,” she explains/

How Linda is able to celebrate Christmas has also been affected by her stroke. “At Christmas it upsets me when I can no longer do some of the little things I used to love doing and I’m reminded again that my life will never be the same after having the stroke. We love Christmas in our house, and I always loved putting the Christmas tree up and decorating the whole house.

“But now it’s too difficult for me to stand up and hang all the decorations. I can’t write Christmas cards anymore either or cook the Christmas dinner. The wee things like that you don’t think of are changed forever.”

Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke is there to help people like Bosco and Linda get back to being able to do the little things. The charity provides life-changing care and support services to anyone at risk of, or currently living with, chest, heart and stroke conditions.

Bosco explains how the charity has supported him, “One of the Care Co-ordinators from Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke contacted me. At that stage we were entering lockdown during the pandemic. Only for their support, I was lost. When you come home from hospital, you’re left on your own.

“The support from the charity meant I was getting Zoom meetings and support phone calls and being able to speak to other people who had the same experience. They have been through it too and come out the other end. Having those chats were worth their weight in gold.”

“I couldn’t recommend the support I received from NI Chest Heart & Stroke highly enough – anything I needed, they were there. They kept in touch and supported you, and thanks to them I’m keeping positive. We even welcomed another baby to the family, Macartan, a year after my stroke. The house is full of football, gymnastics, dancing, singing and all sorts. With seven children aged between two and 12, Christmas will be hectic, but it’s those little things and moments with family that will make it special.”

Linda has nothing but praise for NICHS. “I feel so blessed that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke came into my life. I started their PREP [Post Recovery Exercise/Education Programme] in May. It lasted for six weeks and I enjoyed it so much, I went back for another 6 weeks. Each week we’d do exercises with a physio and each week I was finding I could do the exercises for longer. It really helped with my physical recovery.

“It has helped with my walking. When I was in hospital I said I want to get home and walk my dog Olive. I still can’t walk her on my own, but my walking has improved and with my crutch I can go out with Allen every morning and join them.”

One of the biggest benefits of PREP for both Linda and her husband Allen has been the emotional support which has helped the couple understand Linda’s stroke and its full impact. Linda explains, “We learn about different aspects of stroke and how to manage it. When I was finding it hard to control my emotions and taking them out on my family, Allen used to take it personally, but from going to the class, we both learned it’s because of my brain being affected by the strokethree

“Being able to go along and share with people who know what you’re going through has done my mental health the world of good too. We’re all supporting each other, and it gives us hope.”

“My stroke was almost 3 years ago, and life has changed for the better. Allen and I now volunteer each week at PREP, and at an NICHS Young Stroke Group. I’m so happy to be able to give back to others like me who are starting their stroke journey.”

Jackie Trainor, director of income generation at NICHS explained: “We understand everyone is finding it tough at the moment with the cost of living crisis but as Ursula mentioned, without the support of the Northern Ireland public, we would not be able to continue to help the thousands of local people who need us. We really appreciate any support people can give us. From a £1 donation, which may seem so small, to thousands of pounds from a fundraising event, every pound is important and really helps us to make a difference.”

To find out more about supporting the charity’s ‘Little Things’ campaign this Christmas, visit www.nichs.org.uk/littlethings

Belfast Telegraph News