A Stroke of Luck
When Shelagh Brennand suffered a stroke in April 2013 her world was flipped upside down, but after discovering the power of poetry and exercise on her road to recovery, this determined ex-detective has turned her experience into a way of helping others through the struggles of illness.
“Please don’t talk to me in baby talk, it really isn’t good. Even though my words don’t come out right, I can hear; I understood. Don’t finish all my sentences when you talk to me this way. It’s clear you wish I’d hurry up so we can get on with the day.”
When I read this passage from Shelagh Brennand’s poem I Understand, I found myself reflecting on how we as a society lack patience for people in her position. Whether it’s someone with a speech impediment, a mental disability, or in the case of Shelagh, someone struggling with the after effects of a significant life event such as a stroke, while we usually have the best intentions at heart, very few of us truly understand how even the smallest of actions, like finishing a sentence, can have an impact.
It is for this reason the 52-year-old Yorkshire expat’s self-published book A Stroke of Poetry is making waves, with the expression of her frustrations not only resonating with other stroke survivors, but opening the eyes of their carers, families and friends to the internal battles they go through.
“A lot of my friends are surprised by how I genuinely put my heart and soul in the book, because they are really open, honest poems,” says Sonya, “But I think, if you’re going to help others you need to put that down and then other people’s carers and loved ones can understand how they feel.”
I kept thinking that I am so lucky, but because I felt so horrid, it was hard not to think, ‘Why me?’.”
Shelagh was just 49 when she had her stroke. Having moved from the UK with her husband, David and son, Patrick in 2008, Shelagh traded in her position as a detective inspector, dealing with internal affairs in the English police force, to become a freelance private investigator. And it was on a rare day off when she was hit with what she thought was sunstroke.
It was the last day of the Easter holidays in April 2013, and she’d spent the day with 11-year-old Patrick gardening in her backyard.
“I came inside to get a drink and felt a bit sick. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve just overdone it with the heat’, so I called out to Patrick and asked him to get me a drink of water, and then I went into the bathroom and knelt down on the floor in front of the toilet to be sick. I don’t really remember much after that,” she says.
It was Patrick who found her slumped on the floor, still conscious, but struggling to speak.
“I vaguely remember trying to form words but nothing coming out – I just had this awful lump in my throat.”
By sheer luck, one of Shelagh’s friends decided to visit that day, arriving within minutes of the stroke occurring and calling the paramedics.
“I remember coming out on the stretcher and Patrick crying – that made me upset. And then I remember being in the ambulance and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I think I’ve had a stroke’.”
Within the hour she was at Nambour General Hospital undergoing scans, where they discovered a small clot that had travelled through her basilar artery in the back of her neck into her brain.
Fortunately it was a mild stroke; the clot dissipating by itself and her voice returning, though slurred, within 24 hours. But what baffled Shelagh and her doctors was the fact she found it easier to think in rhyme.
“When I came to and I could speak, but if someone asked me a question or if I was thinking of things in my head, they had to rhyme at the end,” explains Shelagh.
“It was a few weeks in that I woke up in the middle of the night, and I thought it would be good to get these poems out of my head.”
Despite having never written poetry before, Shelagh found herself relying on it as a way to express her frustrations, and it became even more important to her when she found herself stuck in a deep depression.
“There wasn’t and there still isn’t a lot of brain damage, which always gets irritating as to why sometimes I feel like I do. I kept thinking that I am so lucky, but because I felt so horrid, it was hard not to think, ‘Why me?’.
“My body ached from top to bottom and that stayed like that for quite a while. I couldn’t do very much – things that normally come naturally just didn’t anymore, and I was tired even thinking about it.
“I started to write more poems of sadness and laid in bed, and then came a point when I just couldn’t get out of bed. I cried and cried, and it was my sister who said, ‘I think you need to go to the doctor’.”
After seeking help and overcoming yet another obstacle, Shelagh says her poems helped her come out of her shell.
“At first I wrote them about just silly things like forgetting ingredients for cooking or struggling to remember things. One of my favourites I wrote called, It’s only oranges is about when I forgot to take the oranges to Patrick’s soccer game one day,” she laughs.
“It’s about how people perceive you, because people don’t know – you don’t walk up to them and say, ‘Hi, I’m Shelagh and I’ve had a stroke’. And it’s not a big thing, but you feel like you’re failing people.
“There are a lot of internal emotions that you go through. I don’t necessarily look like someone who’s had a stroke, and it’s hard to say to people, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t come to your party because I still can’t listen to loud music and chatter’.”
But it wasn’t until she began working with a personal trainer that she truly began taking her life back.
“She (the personal trainer) taught me to realise that I should be focussing on what I can do, not what I can’t. I did do well in the fitness (losing 9kg), but it was mostly that it took the mind stuff away.
The exercise and poetry without a doubt helped me through it. I don’t ever think, ‘Why me’, anymore.”
Shelagh adds that while she still suffers from fatigue, when she took up exercising she found it switched from mental to physical.
“After my stroke I did try some work, but my brain doesn’t really work the same – it’s not as sharp.
“This has given me that will – that purpose – just to know that I can do anything.”
After receiving great feedback when the Stroke Foundation published one of her poems on their website, Shelagh decided to compile her poetry into a book, through which she aims to not only share her experience, but to instill hope in others. It’s something she clearly has a knack for, with Shelagh currently a finalist in the creative division of the Stroke Foundation Awards.
“I just want people to know that it’s okay to feel frustrated or down – they just need to try and get through it. Whether it’s poetry, exercise, whatever your genre or thing is, just find a way to live your life better, because it doesn’t have to be depressing. And if one person has read one of my poems and has thought, ‘That’s made me feel better’, or, ‘I can do that now’, then it was worth it.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with the after effects of stroke or you want to know more, visit www.astrokeofpoetry.com or www.strokefoundation.com.au
SYMPTOMS OF STROKE
The easiest way to remember the symptoms of stroke is F.A.S.T.
Face: Has their mouth drooped?
Arms: Can they lift both arms?
Speech: Is their speech slurred, or do they understand you?
Time: Time is a crucial factor, so if you have any of these symptoms call 000 immediately
Others signs that can indicate stroke are:
- Weakness or a numb feeling in the face, arms or legs
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dizziness or an unexplained fall
- Sudden impaired vision (blurred, decreased or no vision in one or both eyes)
- Sudden severe headache