Back on the 2nd of January, 2021, I suffered a stroke. I was in the sauna at the time, and I felt something “go wrong” in my brain. All of a sudden, I experienced severe balance issues and felt nauseous. I hopped out of the sauna and went outside to lie down, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better.
I then tried to relocate upstairs back to my room eleven floors up, but my balance was still off. I managed to get there eventually, falling into and touching the side walls as I went. Even standing up straight was incredibly difficult, and walking without falling sideways was impossible. I called the emergency hotline in Australia – 000 and informed the other end that I was having a stroke and I needed someone to come over as soon as possible.
Two paramedics came over to my place. By that time, I had already thrown up multiple times into the bathroom sink. They assessed me for a stroke using the acronym FAST and determined that I didn’t meet many of the typical symptoms they would look for in someone suffering from a stroke.
The acronym F.A.S.T. stood for:
F = Face: Check their face. Has their mouth drooped? Mine had not.
A = Arms: Can they lift both arms? I could lift both of my arms.
S = Speech: Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you? I could understand them, and my speech was not slurred.
T = Time: Time is critical. If you see any of these signs, call 000 now. I had none of these signs, but I did call 000.
Even though it is important to get to the hospital as immediately as possible after a stroke, I did not exhibit any general signs that people look for following a stroke. As my stroke occurred in my cerebellum, none of these symptoms was present, and the paramedics told me that I was unlikely to have a stroke. The paramedics said they could take me to the hospital, but it would cost me a few thousand dollars because I was uninsured.
Instead, they encouraged me to get a medical appointment booked that day to see a GP so that they could follow up on how I was doing before they left. The first GP clinic was all booked out for Saturday morning, so I called 13SICK, the national home doctor service in Australia. They said they could come that afternoon at 3 pm, and with that, the paramedics were satisfied and left my apartment.
My parents then called as I said I couldn’t talk to my brother because of my current health concerns. My mum told me to call health direct to speak to a registered nurse about what was going on if I was concerned. I called 1800 022 222, and the female nurse agreed with the paramedics that I was not suffering from a stroke. She thought that I was experiencing vertigo or migraine, and recommended bed rest and medication to assist with the headaches and nausea that I was experiencing.
I called my parents again and informed my mum that I felt scared and wanted dad to come over. As mum had broken her leg playing tennis in 2020 and was still in a moon boot, I thought that dad coming over and spending the night was a better way to ensure that he could help me if I needed it.
At 7 pm, the doctor called 4 hours after he was scheduled to visit in person. Following his brief assessment, he agreed with the paramedics and nurse that I was not having a stroke and was instead suffering from vertigo or a migraine. The doctor suggested medication to my father, who went and bought this from a pharmacy for me. My sister had also ordered paracetamol for me by this stage and had it ubered to my apartment complex and delivered upstairs by a concierge at the place where I lived.
The night of sleep was horrible, and I kept waking up with a severe headache, vertigo, and frequent nausea that resulted in me vomiting multiple times. By early the next morning, I told my father, who was asleep on the couch, that I needed him to take me to hospital, as things seemed to be getting worse rather than better.
The Next Day
We drove to the Alfred Hospital nearby. My dad assisted me to the car from the apartment and to the hospital’s emergency department. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was not allowed inside to wait with me at the emergency department. Being early on a Sunday morning, very few people were waiting, and a doctor called me to move to another waiting room in the hospital soon. I remember walking there and sitting down, but I don’t remember anything else for a few weeks until I woke up in a ward of the Alfred Hospital.
I later found out that my condition was treated conservatively initially but then deteriorated quickly. My blood pressure spiked, and my stroke had worsened. I required surgery to remove most of my left cerebellum, and I woke up a few weeks later with several tubes and stitches at the back of my head. My head hurt a lot, both in the middle and at the back. They had me on a lot of medication to assist with my blood pressure, cholesterol, pain, and bowel movements. I wasn’t allowed to move out of my hospital bed at all because of my high risk of falls.
Before I realized that I was back in the Alfred Hospital, I thought I was in Nepal on a hiking expedition, in New Zealand, or somehow in an NBA JAM game back from the 1990s. It also felt like I was in an old exercise contraption with tubes up my nose and all over my face. Eventually, I came to and realized that I was back in the hospital that I had arrived at. Still, everything seemed so surreal.
My family kept coming by, especially my parents, even though they were limited in how much time they could spend with me due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my closest friends, a Neuropsychologist, decided to start up a chat group to let as many people as possible know how I was doing and whatever the latest update was. My mum tried to get a few people to send video messages to me but was told not to do this by the hospital staff as my brain needed to recover. Watching the videos would be too stimulating.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable with the tubes coming out of my face and head that I kept trying to pull them out. I was fed up with some of the nurses and their inconsistent rules for what I was meant to do or not do every day. Eventually, they tied my hands down or together so that I didn’t keep pulling at all of the new things attached to my head.
Even going to the toilet or having a shower was a massive ordeal. I wanted to do it myself, but they kept telling me that I needed to buzz the nurses before moving anywhere. I remember waking up once during the night and trying to move to the toilet by myself. I fell on the ground as soon as I tried to move by myself in the dark, only barely saving myself from a hard fall by holding onto the edge of the bed as I went down.
After a month in the Alfred, I moved to Caulfield Rehabilitation Hospital to continue my recovery. After 10 days in there, I was back to trying to continue my rehabilitation at home.
A Big Challenge
One of the hardest things was being away from my partner and her daughter back in Vanuatu. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t easily see them either, but after about three weeks, I was slowly able to talk to them via an audio or video chat again.
Knowing that I had some life-saving surgeries and was in intensive care for a few weeks, this really did feel like a near-death experience for me. Not being able to see my partner and her daughter, who I had been separated from since the 20th of March, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, really hurt. Luckily, my partner agreed to come and visit for 2 weeks at the end of March/start of April 2021.
I am so grateful that she was willing to quarantine for two weeks before seeing me in Australia and for another two weeks once she returned home to Port Vila. Having those two weeks together definitely helped with my recovery. It also helped me overcome my disappointment at the medical insurance company delaying my return to volunteering.
How Things Are Now
It has been nearly five months since my stroke, and things feel like they are returning somewhat to normal. I am back riding my bike and running, and I have even tried to shoot some hoops and play some doubles in tennis. Of course, things are not the same as before the stroke, especially with my high-end balance and coordination, but I am doing everything that I can to do most of the things that I could do before the stroke.
One of the biggest changes is how much work has decreased in my overall priorities since suffering the stroke. Instead, spending time with friends and family has become much more important, and I try to fully give my time and attention to whoever I am with instead of thinking at the back of my head about all the other things I need to do.
Yes, working hard for the future is great, especially financially. But it should not occur at the point of hurting my health or saying no to connecting with the people that mean the most to me in my life. I hope that I can keep this insight in my mind going forward to earn enough to have a good future, but not at the expense of the quality or quantity of life that I have left.
Dr Damon Ashworth