Health case study: The long road to recovery
Brian McEnery was fit and active when, out of the blue, he suffered a stroke, says Joy Orpen. As a result, he was unable to walk. But, now, with the help of the charity, Croi, he is back on his feet and riding his Harley-Davidson
No one is safe from strokes - even the relatively young and the fit are sometimes vulnerable to their often devastating effects. Brian McEnery (61) can attest to the truth of that.
Growing up near Ennis, Co Clare, he and his four siblings were often busy playing football and hurling with local children in the field at home.
After university, Brian spent 25 years at Garbally College and nine years at St Joseph's Patrician College, teaching woodwork, drawing and geography.
In 1988, the family moved to Galway. Catherine, Brian's wife, is a barrister and city councillor.
When he retired in 2009, Brian became active in his local residents' association, helping with landscaping, and so on. He also got involved in the Men's Shed Association - a meeting place where men come together and undertake a variety of mutually agreed activities - and enjoyed passing on information about woodworking and bee-keeping. Riding motorbikes is another great interest.
Over the years, Brian has done four Dublin Marathons, five triathlons and has completed two month-long cycling trips with Catherine in Spain. Running, cycling, squash and rollerblading were all part of his life.
About 16 months ago, thanks to a gift from Catherine, Brian joined Leisureland, their local gym in Salthill. As a new member, he was given a physical assessment and this indicated that he had high blood pressure. So he immediately went to his doctor, but, by then, his blood pressure was normal. Nonetheless, the GP took the precaution of doing blood tests as well.
One week later, Brian began to experience seemingly random problems. He lost power in his right arm while pruning trees. Later that day, a Tuesday, he had difficulty managing a drill at the Men's Shed while he was helping the members build beehives. Using an electrical tool would normally be second nature to him. Nonetheless, he still felt well enough to give someone a lift home on his motorbike.
However, in bed that night, he experienced a 'dead leg' and had to get up and walk about. In the morning, he was alarmed when he realised he was now so stiff he wouldn't be able to drive their two sons, Brian and Stephen, to school, as he usually did. So Catherine took them.
Later, she drove Brian to the doctor. In spite of the incidents and the disturbed night's sleep, he was well able to walk into the surgery, where his blood pressure was again found to be on the low side of normal. Following further examination, no neurological abnormalities were evident, so it seemed as if Brian's problems had been caused by his recent landscaping activities.
That night, Catherine was off doing an Irish course, while her sister, Annette (sadly, since deceased), ate with Brian and the boys. When she got back, Annette told Catherine that Brian had accidentally knocked some things off the dinner table and seemed unwell.
"I immediately called the doctor. He said Brian's blood pressure had been on the low side when he had seen him earlier that day, while there had been no neurological signs that anything was wrong," Catherine recalls. "But, the following morning, Brian was worse. He had no power down his right side and he couldn't walk, but he could speak normally. So, as soon as the surgery opened, I phoned the doctor and let Brian talk to him."
The GP referred Brian to the medical assessment unit at University Hospital Galway (UHG) so they could bypass casualty. They were given an appointment for 1pm.
Catherine helped Brian wash and dress, then she and Annette helped him into the jeep. Catherine drove to the hospital. When they arrived, they struggled to get Brian inside the building - his right side was now completely without power.
"When they told us he'd had a stroke, it was terribly upsetting - the shock was something else," Catherine says. "It was awful having to tell the children. They had always known Brian as a competent man. This was a most perplexing stroke for everyone involved."
Brian says his deterioration was sudden. "On the Wednesday, when Catherine took me to the doctor, I was still able to get in and out of the car, and my blood pressure was normal. But, by Thursday, I needed someone on each side to help me walk. They discovered I had a clot on the brain. I had no power in my right side, including my trunk, so I kept falling over. I went from being someone who was very active to being someone who couldn't walk."
Brian was in the acute stroke unit for three weeks, and spent a further 10 weeks at Merlin Park University Hospital. He worried that he would have a second stroke, but a consultant said that given the treatment he was receiving, he would be unlikely to experience another episode. Putting his trust in the doctor, he felt reassured.
He also welcomed an assurance from the matron that he would be able to ride his treasured Harley-Davidson again one day.
In the meantime, he had to rely on others. "I was used to doing everything for myself, so now I had to learn how to ask for help. Friends offered to do everything from looking after my bees to bailing my boat," Brian says.
After he left hospital, Brian went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin, where he had intense speech and physical therapy for five weeks. "I looked at all this as a life experience. Whatever the medical experts told me to do, I did," he says. "I worked hard on my recovery."
Once home, Brian attended courses for people with brain injuries. He also signed up with Croi, a Galway-based organisation dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. They offer a range of programmes for people who have had strokes, and for those who have had cardiac events. Members of the public can also avail of a range of programmes that aim to prevent disease, save lives, and promote recovery and wellbeing.
"They designed an exercise programme for me," says Brian. "I do yoga at Croi and I get all my medical tests done through them."
According to Croi, strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain bursts or becomes blocked by a clot. Warning signs may include sudden weakness in the face, arms or legs, loss of balance, confusion, trouble talking or severe headache. Brian is already back on his Harley-Davidson to help raise funds for Croi - an organisation that has done so much to help him.
Croi Heart and Stroke Centre, Croi House, Moyola Lane, Newcastle, Galway, tel: (091) 544-310, or see www.croi.ie, or email firstname.lastname@example.org