Stroke survivor backs plea on self-testing

A STROKE survivor from Wells is backing a charity’s plea for people to carry out a simple test on themselves in case they have a ‘silent condition’ which could cause a serious stroke.

The Stroke Association was urging people to mark Stroke Prevention Day on January 12 by checking their own pulse to make sure it’s not irregular.

Rick Hein’s stroke was caused by atrial fibrillation or ‘AF’, where the heart beats with an irregular rhythm. When this happens, the heart won’t empty all of the blood out of its chambers with every beat and the leftover blood can form clots which travel to the brain, blocking off blood flow and causing a stroke.

Rick’s stroke happened almost 12 years ago when he was aged 59. He was falling asleep on the sofa at midnight when he suddenly realised that he was showing all the FAST warning signs of a stroke. His wife Marcia had already gone to bed.

“My eye didn’t focus,” said Rick. “In the mirror in the living room I noticed that my face had dropped. I climbed two flights of stairs. I couldn’t speak. My mouth was moving – no sound was coming out. My right hand was curled. I knew I was having a stroke.”

Rick spent three months in hospital and for the first month and a half was unable to speak.

“The team of speech therapists gave me back my speech. In my head I was able to understand and form responses, but the words didn’t come out. Gradually I made sounds and stretched the sound to make one syllable words. My first words were accompanied by tears. I taught myself to read again with the help of the condensed books in the library at the stroke unit. Continued speech therapy in the community helped to bring back my voice and speech.”

Rick’s stroke has left him with aphasia, a speech and communication difficulty, which means he has to concentrate hard to form the sentences in his mind before he speaks, and searches for the right word to express himself.

Six months after the stroke he was able to make a phased return to work as a teacher at an international school in London before retiring to Somerset.

Before his stroke Rick did not know he had AF, which is now being controlled with medication. He wants others to check themselves and seek help if they detect an irregular pulse.

“I was aware that I had thick blood but no diagnosis of AF. I knew what it was. I hadn’t noticed the irregular heartbeat, and I had no shortness of breath or other symptoms.

“My AF caused the clot to break free from my heart and wind up in my brain. If you have a problem with your pulse, have it checked out please. Your life could depend on it.”

Rick now volunteers for the Stroke Association and is the lead for the Wells Stroke Communications Club which meets on the first Thursday of the month at The Quarter Jack pub in Wells.

It is estimated that around half a million people in the UK are living with undiagnosed AF. It is linked to around one in five strokes and strokes in people with AF are more severe and are more likely to result in death or serious disability.

A survey by the Stroke Association to mark Stroke Prevention Day on January 12 revealed that almost four out of five people (79 per cent) in the South West did not know that AF is a major cause of stroke.

The charity has a video guide on its website at showing people how they can check their own pulse on their wrist or neck.

Jacqui Cuthbert, the Stroke Association’s associate director for the South West and Channel Islands, said: “It’s worrying that so few people know that a little thing like how your heart beats can lead to a massive stroke.

“AF often has no symptoms and a stroke can strike without warning. Don’t let the first sign of your AF be a sudden and life-changing stroke. With early diagnosis and effective management of AF, your risk of a stroke dramatically decreases so it’s vital to get checked regularly.

“It’s really easy to check your own pulse and our research told us that most people are able to. Feel for your pulse on your wrist or neck to make sure it has a regular beat.

“If you suspect you have an irregular pulse, contact your GP practice.”