Michael's story — Reflections on stroke recovery

Michael receives support from icare's Lifetime Care after having suffered a stroke after a cycling accident.

Michael and his wife Eimar.
Michael, 54, was a senior academic at the University of Queensland when he suffered a stroke after a cycling accident. He and his wife Eimear share their story about his recovery.

Michael: The date is Boxing Day, 2015. I am riding in Yamba. I take a route I have taken many times before. I ride to Angourie and I am returning to Dad’s house when I am knocked off my bicycle by a car. I come to with a man and a woman telling me to lie still. I’m thinking, “Am I injured?

Eimear: I am in Ireland. Michael’s sister rang around midnight. The trauma of the bicycle accident had caused a clot and he had a stroke in his sleep. I couldn’t breathe. I frantically began packing. Then, I realised I needed a flight. I woke my parents and James, one of my brothers, drove me to the airport. I cried all the way from Ireland. Mid-flight, I got another message to say that Michael would be taken by chopper to the Gold Coast Hospital. Surgical intervention might be necessary.

Michael: I’m in the hospital trying to brush my teeth with my deodorant. I know who I am, but communicating with the world is a different matter. I cannot talk, read or write. Eimear takes the deodorant and hands me some toothpaste. I keep brushing. Later she hands me my guitar. I know Eimear and am very glad she is here. I do not know what to do with the guitar.

Eimear: He pushes my hair behind my shoulders. These kind of casual and familiar interactions between us signal to me that he is still in there. Later, I create a poster of the alphabet and one of numbers. I’m neither sleeping nor eating. I am drowning in forms. One of the doctors has said he has global aphasia and his outcomes would be poor. The doctor is wrong. From that day on, I mistrust anyone who claims to know with any certainty if or how he will recover. They don’t know Michael.

Michael: I’m now in the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. There are people here that are much worse off than me. Eimear is with me every day. I also see speech, occupational and physiotherapists. I escape to a café on a busy road. Eimear rings. Somehow, she figures out where I am. I am grateful for all the help from those in the Geriatric and Rehabilitation Unit. When Eimear arrives on discharge day, I am sitting on the end of my bed with my suitcase packed and hat in hand.

Eimear: My excitement at having him home is tinged with fear about whether we are ready. His speech is still coming along, but it’s his processing that worries me. He turns on one of the gas cooktops, but tries to light another. He tries to alphabetically sort his records, but struggles with the J-K-L letters. I learn quickly that quietness is our friend, and we need to avoid noisy places. We go on long drives in the country.

Michael: The first difference between hospital and home was fatigue. In hospital, your life is structured. But when I went home, it changed completely. It was up to me to create structure. I remember the first Friday. I got out of bed and tried to get my day under way. By 9am, I gave up and went back to my private heaven, my bed.

I was interested in whether music might help my language. After all, I could sing before I could talk. With a music therapist, Rebecca Eager, I tried learning lyrics and melodies but progress was slow. It seemed that as my speech improved I lost my ability to sing. One day, I got lost in Brisbane where I have lived for years. I misplaced my travel card. I didn’t know where I was and I had no confidence to try to talk to anyone.

Eimear: I worried when I left for work. Was he going to be ok? I was glad on the days the therapists came, because I knew at least some of the time I was away, there was someone else with him. I didn’t want him to feel alone or to get too comfortable in our small house. Everything I had read said he needed to be out in the world communicating, practising his speech.

Michael: I felt safe at home. I wasn’t ready to socialise with people. Eventually, I visited cafés and tried to read. Under some pressure from Eimear, we got a dog, a Cairn terrier I called 'Niccolò Machiavelli', who some people thought looked like me! When I took Mac for walks, I was often stopped by people telling me how cute he was. Walking became a means of exercising but, because the questions were often the same, I learned to practise small-talk with people.

Eimear: After a year, he said he was ready to go back to work. Genevieve, the icare case-worker, was incredible. She met with therapists and his work supervisor and, together, they agreed on a workplan. At this stage, his language was much better but he still found conversations with one person difficult and couldn’t speak in front of groups.

Michael: I returned to work part-time at the University of Queensland. I started very slowly but I pressed on. My colleagues were superb. They understood my difficulties and dealt with them sensitively. By my second year back at work, I was able to give a conference presentation (co-written by Eimear), in front of a delegation of 30 people.

Eimear: Michael is as proud and determined as he ever was. Giving up has never been an option for him. He has worked hard for every 'new' word, conversation and relationship. We have lost friends and found some. We have gained all sorts of perspective on life: what matters and what doesn’t. Michael’s attitude made everything easier. Somehow, he sidestepped the anger, self-pity and depression. I respect and love him more every day.

Michael: I am making good progress and still fighting to get back to as close to 'normal' as is possible. I remain in therapy, and committed to improving my speech, reading and writing. Rebecca Dewberry, my good-humoured speech therapist, continues to help me. Three and a half years later, and I am still improving. I am trying to write for myself, but academic English is like another language, and I need help. What I need now is programs for people going back to high-level work but the cupboard is fairly empty.

I am forever grateful to everyone who has helped me on my journey: therapists, hospital staff, great friends. I spend a lot of time alone and I need this. But I need also a village. Not a city, but a village. We lost Dad last year, Vale Ralph Kenneth Gard. I have returned to riding that route from Yamba to Angourie and back. Most of all, I am thankful for my angel, Eimear Enright. Our recovery is continuing.