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Young stroke survivors warn age is no guarantee of health

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Young people are also susceptible to strokes, such as (on left) Elissa McKay and (on right) Shannon Nelson (Image by Dan Jensen)

Strokes are a rapidly increasing blight on Australian society, but survivors marking National Stroke Week want the public to know it is anything but a condition of the elderly.

As of 2021, roughly one in every four individuals worldwide will be a victim of stroke and its many life-altering effects. This is up from approximately one in six individuals, according to the National Stroke Foundation’s figures.

More than 27,000 Australians suffered their first stroke in 2020 alone and the condition kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer. While up to 80 per cent of strokes are preventable, around a quarter occur in young people of working age and in many cases can strike those who didn’t have prior reason to think themselves at risk.

Elissa McKay was a 19-year-old real-estate receptionist and children’s party organiser in 1999 when she was found unconscious in the stairwell of her apartment building by a stranger who called an ambulance. While at the Alfred Hospital, due to her age, hospital staff initially didn’t realise she was having a stroke.

Ms McKay recounted:

“They were about to send me home when I had a massive bleed. It was then that they realised there was something seriously wrong and called in the neurosurgeon. That ‘something’ happened to be a ‘subarachnoid haemorrhage’, or an aneurysm.”

In many cases, strokes in younger patients are mistaken for something else, which delays urgently needed treatment.

Andrew McKenzie, 43, went several days before receiving medical attention, mistaking his symptoms for the effects of a night of drinking with friends:

In the night, I woke up and I was in pain. I was frozen. I went back to sleep. The next day I felt ill. Monday, I drove to Coles. I didn’t say anything to the check-out girl. Wednesday, I forgot my code at the ANZ machine. I walked to the house and grabbed my cash and walked to the shops. My mate, John, saw me walking and thought I might be drunk. I collapsed and John said, ‘Are you alright?’ I could not answer him.

The tell-tale signs of a stroke generally include a drooping of one side of the face, particularly the mouth. This effect can also extend to the whole side of the body, with patients physically unable to raise both arms. Speech is often slurred, or the individual may be entirely unable to speak.

Well-established risk factors include smoking, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, infection with COVID-19 has also been linked with increased vulnerability to stroke. It is not uncommon, however, for younger sufferers to report not having any such risk factors prior to their first episode.

Such was the case for 45-year-old Shannon Nelson. The mother-of-two was awoken in the early hours after Mother’s Day 2018 when her husband Stuart recognised the signs of stroke and dialled 000.

She credits her husband’s alertness with not only saving her life, but ensuring she was given the appropriate treatment when she reached the hospital: 

“They strapped me to a hover mat and dragged me down the hallway of our house. I remember seeing Gemma, our daughter, holding our dog in the doorway of her room as I was being dragged out. I began to cry. I thought to myself, ‘I might not get through this’. They took 11 vials of blood from me. They didn’t find anything abnormal, I didn’t even have high cholesterol.”

In the aftermath, Ms Nelson retained only the limited use of her right arm and has only recovered her speech and mobility through patience and gruelling therapy.

The most common conditions stroke survivors are left with include Aphasia, a reduced ability to understand and communicate through language. Apraxia is a somewhat related condition whereby learned physical movements, including speech, become difficult or impossible.

While the effects are life-altering and often life-long, many survivors are keen to stress the condition need not put an end to dreams and careers. In October 2020, Shannon Nelson returned to her job in the healthcare sector at the nursing workforce unit and after ten months, was back full-time.

“I decided I wasn’t going to be a stroke victim, but a stroke survivor. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”

Samuel Geddes is a Melbourne-based journalist whose work has also appeared in the British and Italian media. He can be followed at @SamuelGeddes.

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