How I found strength on my long walk to recovery

On the phone, her voice is calm, clear, and full of positivity. You wouldn’t guess that six years ago, Kathleen Jordan was lying in a hospital bed at Royal Melbourne Hospital after suffering a major right haemorrhagic stroke — one of the most severe and deadly forms of stroke.

“It was a major bleed.” Kathleen explains, “In fact, one doctor said they’d never seen such a big bleed in anyone that had survived.”

The doctors had warned her family to prepare for the fact that she may end up in an aged care ward for the rest of her life, or worse, she could be in a permanent vegetative state.

“They actually said to my daughters that they should probably consider an NFR. An NFR means a ‘not-for-resuscitation’ order, but the girls said, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen. She’s going to be fine.’”

And Kathleen proved her daughters right. “I’m back doing all the things I used to do. I see my grandchildren, I go to the ballet and the opera, I see my friends, I’m living in the most wonderful retirement complex in Carlton … and I’ve got lots and lots of friends,” she says. “A lot of it is good and I’m very grateful for the life I’ve got.”

Prior to the incident, Kathleen led a busy life, running her own leadership coaching business which sent her travelling around Australia and across the world. By contrast, having to spend almost two years recovering in hospital was a huge adjustment.

Stroke is one of Australia’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability. While Kathleen says her blood pressure was under control and there was no clear cause for the stroke, she recalls her doctor warning her to take it easy.

“My doctor had been saying to me, ‘You need to slow down a bit, you’re doing a lot.’ And I would always say, ‘But I’m loving what I’m doing.’ I guess it’s when your body is in resolves with your mind really.”

Sharon McGowan, CEO of the National Stroke Foundation, says 80 per cent of strokes can be prevented. “The advice is to know your blood pressure and maintain it within normal range, eat well, keep a healthy weight, don’t smoke, keep blood pressure down, exercise regularly, and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum.”

“Stroke doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone at any age, however risk factors do increase with age,” she adds.

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From the acute trauma, through to the stroke ward, Kathleen’s return to everyday life is amazing

Recovering after a stroke
For Kathleen, the haemorrhagic stroke resulted in partial paralysis on the left side of her body. She is unable to use her left hand and will have to continue doing physiotherapy, probably for the rest of her life.

“Every single day is a struggle day, but I’m not going to give up that struggle because — even six years later — I’m still making improvements,” says Kathleen.

“It’s still very hard. Some silly things are difficult, like I was trying to get something out of a package before — and trying to do it with one hand. I was just getting very cross because I couldn’t do it.”

The operation to stop the significant bleed in her brain damaged some neurons, sometimes causing Kathleen to search for words when speaking — pausing mid-sentence or often repeating herself.

“It’s called aphasia,” explains Kathleen. “However, when I say that to my friends, they all just laugh and say, ‘But we all have trouble finding words!’”

Overcoming adversity
Kathleen’s resolve and tenacity following her recovery is inspiring, despite her initial fears of being unable to live a normal life again.

“I had to just rely on thinking about [my] strengths, and every time I made a little bit of progress, my family and my friends [would] help me celebrate that progress.”

“For a long time I couldn’t really walk or sit up without falling over but, with physio and determination, I am now walking around my apartment.”

Kathleen actually set in place what she calls her ‘Hope Team’, made up of her close friends and family members. “Whenever I was feeling low, I could ring one of the people in my Hope Team and say, ‘Help me, what do I need to do?’ and they would very quickly give me some encouragement. So my Hope Team helped me tremendously. They just wanted to support me, even more than what was perhaps expected of them.”

In her book, Standing Up! My Story of Hope, Advocacy & Survival after Stroke, Kathleen shares the tools that helped her progress during her stroke journey, and how she achieved resilience and happiness by reframing issues.

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Kathleen Jordan's book tells her inspiring story of recovery

“I wrote the book for stroke victims and their loved ones. I want to give people hope that they too can recover from stroke, from other illness, by really focusing their minds ... [with] the belief that you can.”

“Have hope that you can recover and work hard on your physio,” she suggests. “Surround yourself with positive people — perhaps create a ‘Hope Team’ that will help you feel strong and focussed on your recovery.”

While the road to recovery can be an uphill battle, there are platforms for the Australian stroke community to discuss and seek support. The enableme  website is a good place to start. It provides a forum for stroke survivors, carers and loved ones to share their experiences, set recovery goals, and gain further knowledge about stroke.

“Setting personal recovery goals, and self-directed rehabilitation continues to play an important role in Kathleen’s journey after stroke,” says Sharon McGowan of the Stroke Foundation. “[She] is a true inspiration and her experience demonstrates the determination, vital support, and services stroke survivors need to live well after stroke. Kathleen shows that there is life after stroke.”

Although Kathleen has been able to return to semi-normality, she will have carers for the rest of her life. “Sometimes I got a bit miserable about that,” says Kathleen, “and then I thought, ‘Kathleen, just be grateful for the fact there are carers available, and that they want to do a good job and look after you.’ So that made me feel a lot better. Rather than feeling miserable, just think, ‘What have you got?’”

“I am just so happy that my life is back on an even keel,” she adds. “I can’t do everything I used to do — for instance, I can’t drive a car anymore, but I’ve got people who look after [me] and who care for me. I’m just blessed really.”

Have you had to overcome a major trauma in your life? How did you find the strength?

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