Young mother-of-five Niav McNamara shares how training and setting a goal of completing the Women’s Mini Marathon next month has helped her on her road to recovery
Climbing mountains may not exactly be top of Niav McNamara’s list, but since suffering a mini-stroke in September 2021, walking has given her a new lease of life. This year, the social care educator and e-learning developer from Gorey in Wexford is taking on her first Vhi Women’s mini marathon.
It is a significant milestone for Niav after her health scare. “It was a real shock,” Niav says. “My dad had a stroke but he was in his 70s at the stage. I had none of the warning signs; no high blood pressure or any of the other medical signs that would have put me in a high-risk category. And I was only 44 at the time.”
As chance would have it, in the days before her mini-stroke, Niav had been admitted to Wexford General Hospital with dizziness and chest pains. The hospital ran tests which came back clear and so she was sent to St Vincent’s in Dublin for an angiogram.
The procedure went well, but afterwards there were some minor complications; there was heavy bleeding whenever the medical team attempted to remove the TR Band (a compression device designed to assist the body’s normal functioning), and the artery in her hand also went into spasm. While most patients are discharged an hour after the procedure, Niav was asked to hold on.
“I think that someone was watching over me because if the artery had not gone into spasm and I had not bled when they took the TR Band off, I would have been in the ambulance on the side of the N11 when it happened, which would have been a lot more terrifying.”
“They had sent away the ambulance crew and said we will call someone when she is ready to be discharged. About an hour and a half later, I had a stroke in the bed in the cardiac unit of St Vincent’s,” she says. “I think that someone was watching over me because if the artery had not gone into spasm and I had not bled when they took the TR Band off, I would have been in the ambulance on the side of the N11 when it happened, which would have been a lot more terrifying,” she says.
While she was having the stroke, she experienced dizziness and a loss of function down the left-hand side of her body. “It was the most intense dizziness,” she says. “And I tried to talk to the nurse and I noticed my speech was really, really bad. She had brought me in my tea and I noticed that I had no use of my left hand, and they checked my leg and the leg was gone. There was no power or strength.”
The hospital conducted CT scans and she returned to Wexford Hospital where she was discharged just under a week later. “Then three weeks later I had another episode,” she says. While she did not experience the same loss of function, her cognitive ability was affected.
She had some symptoms of a mini-stroke but not all so medics couldn’t confirm that it was a stroke. “It is a suspected one,” she explains. In the weeks and months after, Niav began her road to recovery. She started walking with a cane, and then venturing around the perimeter of her garden or down her driveway.
“I started very slowly,” she says. “I was not prepared for the fatigue. I would be sleeping 16 hours a day. I didn’t drive for three months afterwards — common sense told me not to. A mini-stroke really takes a toll — physically, emotionally, cognitively — it’s exhausting.”
As the months passed, the distances she walked increased and she was able to drive short journeys — to Mass and back.
Walking became a key part of her recovery programme. “I have a physio programme and it is a walk every second day and it is dumbbells the alternate days, so working the upper body and then working the lower body,” she says.
She tends to walk on her own and set her own pace but she met fellow walkers taking part in their local Climb for Charlie earlier this year. “One of the women who did it said ‘What would you think about doing the Mini Marathon?’ It’s a great way to keep the motivation going. It’s a great goal to have. “This is my Everest. To be able to contemplate doing it is huge, to know it is in my reach is amazing.”
This year is a significant year for marathon walkers, joggers, and runners. After a two-year Covid-related hiatus during which the Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon went virtual, this will be the first year the live, in-person event is back.
“I am walking the marathon, definitely not running it — I would need a week in bed if I did that. I am walking it and as long as I am finished by Monday morning, I will be happy.”
“I am walking the marathon, definitely not running it — I would need a week in bed if I did that. I am walking it and as long as I am finished by Monday morning, I will be happy,” she jokes. “I would hope to have it done in two hours. I think that’s doable. I think the atmosphere is going to be great. But I am so excited about getting across the finishing line. That’s what I am looking forward to the most. I will feel 10ft tall coming home.”
She is hoping her family will be able to come up for the day but is still organising the logistics. Niav is raising awareness and funds for Bumbleance, the National Children’s Ambulance Service. While she has never directly had to use the service, she knows families who have and has seen the positive impact it made to their lives.
“I have five children and luckily I have never had to avail of the service. But as a fellow parent, I think it is a fantastic service and makes such a difference to people’s lives,” she says. “I am raising awareness because I think unless you need services like that, you don’t always think about them. And if more people know, they might get more support. I always think ‘If you can help someone why wouldn’t you?’ So if I’m going to be walking, I may as well put it to good use and raise some funds for a worthwhile charity.”
It may be her first marathon but she sounds like it could become a regular fixture; she is already planning to take part in the 2023 Mini Marathon and raise awareness for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution).
She encourages any other women thinking of taking part in the mini marathon to go for it. Niav does not describe herself as ‘superfit’ and says the important thing is to set your own pace and your own goal, and acknowledge and celebrate your own achievement. “I think it’s a great event — it connects you with other women, gives you a training focus, and raises money for charity. All-in-all, it’s a win-win situation.”
The Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon takes place on June 5. For more information, see vhiwomensminimarathon.ie