Sunday, October 2, 2011

Different strokes

Last year, my partner and I took an old friend, Denis, to a birthday lunch at Mirka's in Fitzroy Steet, St Kilda. We shared a bottle of red. At the end of the meal, Denis was having difficulty standing up, despite the fact that he had consumed little wine. We had to help him out the door. He was speaking clearly and felt no pain, but he simply couldn't stand up. We took him straight to his doctor, who diagnosed a stroke. We felt stupid for not realising what had happened, and drove Denis straight to the Epworth hospital in Richmond. We were still within that 'four hour safety zone' where, if the stroke is due to a blood clot it is possible to administer some form of miracle drug that clears the clot before there is any major destruction of brain cells due to blood starvation (this is apparently quite wrong and I would welcome any corrections from readers, along with your stroke jokes). Denis had a cerebral haomorrhage and there is no 'miracle cure' for that. So we waited with him in triage, until he was admitted. I thought it extraordinary that Denis could have a stroke without noticing the precise moment, as it were. There was no pain, no headache. And that's the thing about strokes, they sort of creep up on you. And you don't even realise you've had a stroke until you attempt to walk or speak, only to find that you can't. Very early on the morning of 6th September, I had my own stroke. My lips felt numb and my fingertips tingled. They were the only two symptoms and I figured I'd had some mild form of attack, something like indigestion; nothing as ominous as a stroke. (By the way, strokes aren't truly ominous, it's just that we have come to think about them that way. My agent was concerned that I might require brain surgery and even a stent inserted into my brain. And yet one in four people is likely to suffer a stroke and almost all recover completely.)
  This is not my brain.

SO, here's the educational part. Are you sitting comfortably? A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, the first case being that the wall of a blood vessel bursts, allowing blood to leak to the brain. This stops the delivery of oxygen into the brain, causing cells to die. About fifteen percent of all strokes are haemorrhagic strokes, where blood leaks into the the brain. An aschaemic stroke (which is what I have just experienced) is more common. In this case, a clot blocks a blood vessel that is too narrow for it to pass through, and the brain is again starved of oxygen. The brain cells in the immediate area that die are known as an infarct. (A gift to comedy. And there are no shortage of stroke jokes - which is fine by me. Mel Brookes once said he was working on a sequel To a famous sitcom where the principal character suffersS a stroke. According toO Brookes, the show was to be called Half of Father Knows Best. I laughed when I heard that, just as I laughed at the start of the movie The Player, where seomone - I think it was Buck Henry - pitches to studio execs a sequel to The Graduate, where Mrs Robinson has just sufferred a stroke. And JAck BLack was pretty funny in High Fidelity when he expressed his concern to a customer who wanted to buy I Just Called to Say I Love You for his teenage daughter: 'Oh my god, did she have a stroke? Is she in a coma?' Bring on the stroke jokes, I say. Take the mozz off it.

People considered high risk for stroke are those with high blood pressure (that would be me) diabetics (that wouldn't) the obese and unfit (pass) smokers (gave up years ago) those under stress (I don't consider myself stressed. I figure I'm fairly laid back but no one else does).

This is my brain.

Denis recovered from his stroke, and I am currently recovering from mine. I have regular physiotherapy, the main aim of which is to restore my sense of balance, and also speech therapy. The muscles down the left side of my face don't work (or rather, they do but my brain has forgotten that), my lip droops and my soft palate won't lift. This means that a lot of things I say come out of my nose. I'd make a great ventriloquist, but my dolly would sound like Julia Gillard.

The incredible Doug MacLeod and Julia.

One of the side-effects is that my long-term memory is now very good, but I have difficulty remembering what day of the week it is. When doctors and nurses asked me for my home address, I kept telling them that I lived in Eltham - which I did, twenty years ago. For some reason I also know quite a bit of German, a language I studied briefly and wihout much success, when I was a teen. (According to my mother, a nurse, there is scientific evidence of this happening before. So, apparently strokes can bring out the German in you. Who knew? I m now ensconced in St Kilda - not Eltham- where I am trying to trick my brain into rewiring itself, so I can continue to write and make a living. I still sound a bit weird when I speak, as though I have just downed a litre of brandy. This morning I unintentionally scared away a beggar in Coles Carpark in Acland Street. He approached me and remarked that it was a beautiful morning. Eager to show off my newly regained vocal ability, I agreed with him, and added a few trenchant observations about the cloudscape. I might even have told him that I have it on good authority that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. He ran. Despite scaring the occasional vagant, I think I'm coming through it okay, though this blog is taking me forever to type and I'm aware that it's full of typos and spectacularly dull. I'll keep you posted on any progress, and whether the ventriloquism career takes off. What I really want to do is write a sequel to The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, since that's the first book I've ever written where I actually made back the advance that Penguin paid me.

Here is someone who can put this all much better than I can, and indeed has made a fortune out of her stroke. Good on Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. You get lemons, so you make lemonade.


the sun booksellers said...

Wowsers. Scary stuff. Glad you are OK, Doug. Thanks for sharing this and all the best for the rest of your recovery!

from the Sun Bookshoppers

One question - when you said your agent thought you might need surgery you meant doctor, right? Or do you just have a really amazing agent?

DougMacLeod said...

No, I meant agent. I don't think a doctor would seriously consider putting a stent in a human brain as a means of curing stroke.

Dan Verkys said...

Well I hope you get back to 100% lickety split, take care mate.

Dan V

Anonymous said...

Dear Doug I was thinking of you on the weekend- by chance I read Peter Oystons obituary and felt compelled to say thankyou although it was too late of course to speak with Peter. It was a powerful need though- you know- how that opportunity helped me to grow into the person I am today- and so I went to the celebration of his life. Then this morning Rick sent me a link to your blog. I hope you don't mind that I am contacting you through this forum but am sending you good wishes for a speedy recovery. Lots of love Janine McLean - although not married to Rick anymore.