World Stroke Day: Reflections from Rob Palk
World Stroke Day takes place each year on 29 October. It highlights worldwide rates of stroke, raises awareness of ways to prevent stroke and focuses attention on the need for support for stroke survivors and their carers.
A stroke is a brain attack which happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, caused by a clot or bleeding in the brain. Stroke is the leading cause of severe adult disability worldwide and over 1.2 million people in the UK live with the effects of stroke.
Understanding of and treatments for stroke have changed dramatically over the lifetime of the NHS. Nevertheless 1 in 4 of us will have a stroke during our lifetimes and stroke survivors face huge challenges in rebuilding their lives after stroke. Capturing the voices that lie behind the history of stroke, treatments and patient experience will help us understand better a condition that affects so many of us, our families and friends.
Here Rob Palk shares his experience of having a brain haemorrhage and its aftermath at the age of 38.
Stroke Association is a national charity and one of NHS at 70’s partners.
Listen to Rob describe the experience of having a brain haemorrhage.
For more than a week after this, Rob didn’t know what had happened. After days being ill and delirious in bed, he went to his local hospital, but was misdiagnosed with bad flu and sent packing. It was only after he returned to work, realised he had lost much of his vision, went to an optician and was referred onwards to Moorfields Eye Hospital that he learned what had actually happened. Here he remembers what it was like to be told he had a blood clot the size of a golf ball in his brain:
Listen to Rob describe his diagnosis.
Very quickly, Rob was admitted to the National Hospital for Neurosurgery and scheduled for an operation to remove the blood clot and repair the blood vessels in his brain. He was in danger of another bleed, which would almost certainly kill him, and there was no guarantee that the operation itself would end happily. I asked him how he felt on the morning of the operation, and how he accommodated himself to the possibility of dying. (Warning: his answer is a bit mucky.)
The operation went well: Rob survived. Here he describes waking up, and identifies himself as an enthusiast for Paul McCartney, Christmas, and being alive.
Listen to Rob talk about waking up after his operation.
However, the next few months were not easy: the mental and physical consequences of brain injury and neurosurgery can be severe, and recovery can be difficult. Rob suffered from a bout of severe depression, which was not helped by him immediately trying to write his first novel.
Listen to Rob talk about his recovery.
Listen to Rob talk about adjusting to life as a disabled person.
Recovery and aftercare, of course, is a long process that doesn’t necessarily end during your lifetime. I asked Rob how his prognoses had changed, and how he felt about living with the possibility of further haemorrhages. Brain injury, we find out here, forces you to think about questions like whether it would be worse to die or to go blind; it also forces you to rely on social structures which might be taken away – as indeed Rob’s disability benefit was. (He later wrote about his experience with the DWP here.)
These days, Rob is doing well. The novel he wrote about his brain haemorrhage was published in 2017, and continues to sell; he is working hard on his second, and has recently been told that his chances of another brain haemorrhage are now very slight to nil. As the interview drew to a close, I asked him how he felt about all the big questions of mortality, being dependent on a brain and a body, and whether a near-death experience makes you better or worse at writing books. “You get a new sense of yourself,” he says, “as a failing sack of flesh … but that’s probably salutary, and good”.
Listen to Rob reflect on his experiences.