Sunday 19 November 2017

Brain power: how Colm Griffin is recovering from a stroke

Following a stroke, Colm Griffin suffered a debilitating paralysis. He tells Joy Orpen it was a relentless struggle to access the services he so desperately needed in order to become a fully productive member of society again

Gerry Mooney
Gerry Mooney

Downright disappointment and deeply felt frustration come to mind when Colm Griffin (36), an electrical design engineer from Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, talks about his experiences following a brain injury.

A sheaf of papers compiled by him attests to the difficulties he encountered in gaining access to appropriate, affordable and consistent therapies to deal with his condition.

It all began in 2014, when Colm's brother was rushed to Cork University Hospital (CUH) where he was successfully treated for a brain haemorrhage. However, when his consultant investigated the Griffin family's medical history, it transpired some of them could be prone to similar problems. For example, Colm's father died in 2008 following a second brain haemorrhage. His grandmother also died from the same condition when she was in her mid-50s.

"So the consultant recommended we all be checked," explains Colm. In August 2015, he was shocked when he was told he had an aneurysm in his right cerebral artery. This can occur when there is a weakness in the wall of an artery. The pressure of blood may cause a dangerous outward swelling. Or pressure may lead to the damaged artery rupturing, with potentially devastating consequences.

Colm learned he had two main options. He could leave well enough alone, while being screened on a regular basis, or he could have the aneurysm dealt with surgically. The consultant explained there were serious risks involved in both courses of action. But after much soul searching, Colm chose to have surgery. "I decided to tackle it while I was still young and fit," he says. He informed his boss he would be on sick leave for three months following his operation - that was how long his recovery was expected to take.

Colm's surgery was performed last year, on November 18. His fiancee, Mary O'Halloran, a nurse, was by his side during the pre-surgery procedures. When she next saw him, he was paralysed down his left side.

Investigations revealed that while the "clipping" of the aneurysm had gone well, Colm had developed a clot in his brain, and this had caused a stroke. "When they lifted me up, my left side was just dangling," he recalls, the distress still palpable in his voice. "I'd often heard the expression, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it'. So I began to wonder what the hell I had done to myself."

Thankfully, surgery to remove the clot was successful. However, Colm was now a wheelchair user, because of the stroke. He spent a week in ICU, followed by four weeks in the neurological surgery ward, having 15 hours of physio and five hours of hydrotherapy a week. "The surgeon did a great job under difficult circumstances, while the members of the physio team were fantastic, even though it's not a rehab hospital," says Colm.

Just before Christmas, he was allowed to go home, but he didn't feel he was sufficiently recovered to be discharged. "I felt I was irrelevant. The message seemed to be, 'Now your aneurysm is fixed, it's time to sort yourself out. We need that bed for someone else'. I was so angry about that decision," he says.

Not surprisingly, Colm was very despondent; he couldn't walk, his left hand was still tightly clenched, he couldn't dress himself, and he certainly couldn't drive or work. But he says there were no meaningful services available to him, so he was forced to fund his own vital rehabilitation. "It cost me €50 for every half-hour hydrotherapy session, and the same for physio," he explains.

However, he was confident things would improve once he went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dublin. This happened in February of this year, and Colm remained there for over 10 weeks. He says things seemed to move at a snail's pace. He reckons he was given, on average, three hours of physio in the course of each five-day week. He had a similar amount of time for occupational therapy, and just one hour of hydrotherapy.

Bear in mind that what he was now getting on a weekly basis was more or less what he had received on a daily basis in CUH. The rest of the time, Colm says, he was lying about, doing nothing.

"I could have done a lot of work on my own," he says. "I was fit, determined and well-motivated to get back on my feet. But at the NRH, you weren't even allowed in the gym after hours, and the pool closed at 12.30pm. It was even more depressing because there was nowhere to go after the sessions, and very little activity at night."

However, Colm has nothing but praise for the various members of staff. "They work flat-out, trying to do all they can," he says. "They were really amazing, doubling up on patients, giving us as many hours as possible." But he is highly critical of the failure of the system to provide adequate therapy. "It's well known that early intervention is crucial to recovery. If I'd had access to adequate and consistent rehab from the very beginning, I'd probably be back at work by now, paying thousands in taxes. This lack of services is a false economy."

Having left the NRH, things got even worse. Colm says, apart from a couple of meetings with a physiotherapist, there was nothing. Even so, he pushed on, doing all he could to speed up his recovery. He was greatly helped by people who have raised funds to help him access the therapies he so desperately needs - they included friends from home and college, members of his and Mary's families, supporters of the local GAA club and his buddies at the Crusaders Cycling Club.

"Thanks to them, I have regular physio and work with a personal trainer," he says. "I'm making progress and hope to return to work soon. Only for them, I wouldn't be where I am now. There's very little in the public system."

Professor Mark Delargy, clinical director at the NRH, says, "Ireland is still very much under-supplied compared with our European counterparts, with both intensive therapy rehabilitation beds, outpatient services and community rehabilitation, especially those delivered by comprehensive rehabilitation teams. At the NRH, all rehabilitation activities are either delivered or supervised by trained staff."

The Neurological Alliance of Ireland (NAI) recently launched a campaign titled We Need Our Heads Examined, which calls on the Government to "make the provision of neuro-rehabilitation services a priority for the 25,000 people in Ireland who need them".

To contact the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, see, or tweet @nai_ireland, using the hashtag #rehab4ireland

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