‘Like a baseball bat to the head’: Life after surviving a stroke at 29
- Credit: Archant
One woman in Essex had to learn to walk again after she was struck by a stroke at just 29 years old.
Erin Losty, now 37 and living in Chelmsford, is one of the faces of the Stroke Association's latest film, Rebuilding Lives, designed to warn younger people they can be affected by strokes as well.
Her personal struggle and a lack of available support while recovering has pushed her to work closely with the charity - hopefully providing the help she desperately needed eight years ago.
'Like a baseball bat to the back of the head'
Before joining the University of Essex in 2019 as a senior research officer in the School of Life Sciences, Dr Losty was working and studying in west London.
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A hard-working 29-year-old researcher at Brunel University and part-time PhD student, she had reached the end of another tough week in April 2012.
She dismissed two dizzy spells she had earlier in the day as a sign she needed to eat, and arrived home alone about 7.30pm before sitting on her bed.
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A sudden, excruciating pain in the back of her head, as if she was hit in the head with a baseball bat, left her in the fetal position on the floor, unable to open her eyes and being violently sick.
She wouldn't know for another six years, but she was experiencing a rare kind of brain haemorrhage - a potentially fatal haemorrhagic stroke causing bleeding between her brain and skull.
"It hit me in about 0.5 seconds, the pain was so intense and getting worse," she explained.
"All I could do was crawl between the bathroom and my bedroom floor and call 111.
"After running through the questions with me they said, 'I don't want to alarm you, but after this call you need to immediately call an ambulance, do you understand?'
"Even after that I called for a non-emergency ambulance because I didn't know what was happening to me, I was worried I'd be depriving someone else of an ambulance."
Paramedics and a friend helped her to an ambulance. She was admitted to nearby Hillingdon Hospital three hours later. According to the Stroke Association, about 10% of people who suffer this stroke die before reaching hospital.
She was almost immediately sent to Charing Cross Hospital, which houses a hyper acute stroke unit, for further treatment.
'I was intimately acquainted with six ceiling tiles'
Speaking to this paper almost eight years after her stroke, Dublin-born Dr Losty recalled how, despite four weeks in hospital, she never saw the faces of the doctors treating her or even the family members that came from Ireland to visit her.
Dr Losty said: "I could barely see for four weeks. I couldn't move my head, I couldn't sit up.
"I couldn't pick out the doctors that treated me now if I tried.
I was told that the view from my window was fantastic, you could see the London Eye, but because I was stuck I became intimately acquainted with six ceiling tiles in my peripheral vision above me."
Despite having almost no vision, Dr Losty was having to take in a huge amount of information about the severity of her condition, still believed to be a brain haemorrhage.
"I don't think I ever heard the word stroke during my time at hospital," she added.
"The doctors and consultants were coming and going from my bed, asking me how I was feeling, and all I could tell them was that I had a whopping headache.
"It was a very scary time for me and my family but after a point you just have to trust in the people around you."
After four weeks of hospital treatment Dr Losty was discharged, returning home with family caring for her in the short-term and her housemate helping where he could.
'I had to practise like a child, over and over again'
Dr Losty said: "When you break an arm or a leg, you get a cast on it and you're told to rest it, it will heal over time.
"After I left hospital, it wasn't clear what I was meant to do to rest and recover. Are you supposed to rest your brain? How do you rest your brain?
"All I was told when I left was not to smoke - I didn't smoke - and to do what I felt I could, within reason."
She described having to learn how to walk in the smallest of steps, thinking about every part of the movement of each leg one at a time.
"Everything I had to learn I had to practise like a child, over and over again until I could do it," she said.
After those she tackled everyday jobs, like fastening the buttons on her cardigan and hanging a duvet cover.
Her ability to organise, plan and execute the smallest of tasks was missing.
"It was so strange. I could see what I wanted the result to be, and the stroke hadn't affected my motor skills, but I couldn't get things done," she explained.
"I could see all the steps, but connecting them together almost didn't make sense."
"I set myself a goal of walking to Sainsbury's and doing the shopping, it was eight minutes away on foot.
"The first time I tried to walk there I took 40 minutes and I couldn't even get halfway. I kept having to stop, it was exhausting.
"The first time I made it there, I'd not thought about having to shop and get back. I hadn't thought about saving the energy for that.
"And in the shop you realise the number of things your brain is doing all the time: coping with the lights, the noise, the people, it was so difficult."
Dr Losty described a moment in a restaurant she and a friend visited in the weeks after she left hospital.
A group at another table were having a celebration and making some noise when she found herself inexplicably overwhelmed.
"I told him I had to get out of there and he wanted to know what was wrong with me," she said.
"I didn't know what it was but I couldn't be in there anymore.
"Everything was difficult, it was as if my brain couldn't do anything in the background anymore."
'Getting involved was a no-brainer'
Months and years of practise saw Dr Losty regain some of her cognitive capabilities.
Praising her previous employer Brunel University for their support, she said she initially went back to work too soon, just three months after her stroke. She was still unable to walk at the time.
She persevered, starting a new PhD at Cranfield University, near Milton Keynes, in January 2015 after she had to abandon the previous one. She graduated in June 2019.
"A lot of it has come back, but I'm still reading slower than I used to," Dr Losty said.
She moved in with her partner in Chelmsford in May 2018 while she finished writing her doctorate, when a chance meeting in a shopping centre gave her a shot of inspiration.
"I saw a stand for Stroke Association out shopping one day, where they were carrying out some blood monitoring.
"In my own research over the years I had come to believe I'd has a stroke as well, so I approached them and told them I was really keen to get involved because I found, when I came out of the hospital, there was no support. Getting involved was a no-brainer really.
"There was no one there to tell me if anything I was going through was normal. I struggled to find anyone relate to.
"If I can say to one person "I went through that too", then I know I'll have made a difference."
Erin Losty in Rebuilding Lives
As part of her work supporting Stroke Association, Dr. Losty appeared in the charity's film, called Rebuilding Lives.
Now, after votes from 65,000 members of the public, the film is shortlisted for the 2020 Charity Film Awards.
A panel of judges will now pick a winner at a London gala in the spring.
"I'm normally the last person to get in front of a camera, but the message I'm trying to share is too important," she said.
"I've come so far in my recovery and adapted really well, but I didn't tell anyone about it while I was studying for my PhD.
"I don't know it would be received, or if it could affect my future employment.
"As a young stroke survivor, many of the after effects I deal with are hidden, making it difficult to manage people's perceptions and expectations of me.
I believe raising awareness helps with this, giving people the ability to understand the impact of stroke will enable them to support stroke survivors in rebuilding their lives."
"Being involved in the Stroke Association's rebuilding lives campaign has helped me to accept my stroke, and the difficulties it has brought," she added.
"It has helped bring to light the progress I have made, reinforcing life after stroke is not only possible, I am doing it, along with 1.2 million UK stroke survivors.
"I really hope everyone can vote for our amazing advert."
Watch the Rebuilding Lives film here, www.stroke.org.uk/rebuilding-lives