Since his stroke in 2016, Paul McLean, from County Armagh, has committed himself to supporting other survivors through volunteering, fundraising and, most recently, by becoming one of the stars of our Rebuilding Lives campaign. Here he shares his experiences.
“I’m a story person. I was an English and drama teacher, and before that, an actor – everything I did was about stories and how important they are. The only thing you truly own is your story. So as soon as I got my brain to a place where I could start asking questions again, I wanted to be able to understand and tell mine.
I was in the living room on a Saturday morning. I went to look at my phone and I couldn’t lift my right hand. I tried to tell my wife, Suzi, but I couldn’t speak. She looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’. She thought I was joking around, but soon realised something was seriously wrong.
I don’t remember travelling to the hospital. I just remember the consultant who was doing my mechanical thrombectomy telling me to stop moving my head because I kept turning it to the side while he was in my brain! I had a 10% chance of surviving the operation. But I’m stubborn and decided I’d push my way through.
I found out later that I’d been taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, rather than my local hospital in Craigavon, because a paramedic thought that my best chance of survival was to go to straight to the only hospital in Northern Ireland that performs thrombectomies. He saved my life by taking me to the best hospital I could go to.
To begin with, I didn’t really understand how much had changed in my body. But I was fortunate that my brain found everything funny. Funny that I couldn’t stand up. Funny that if I needed to pee, I had to press a button. Everything seemed silly and strange. It all became part of this brand new story. I still find some of the things I do because of my stroke funny. People find it strange that I can laugh about it and think it’s a mechanism to make me feel better. Maybe it is, but to me it’s the only way. This stroke could destroy my life – or it could be a funny part of my life. It changes things every single day. But instead of being sad, I have to find a way forward.
Thanks to the thrombectomy, my physical disability is limited. I can walk quite well, and completed the Camino de Santiago to raise money for the Stroke Association. But I have a lot of disabilities that still exist in my brain – invisible wounds. I forget things really quickly. After my stroke, I lost a lot of information – old memories come back as if they’re brand new. I also lose balance and fall over, especially when I’m tired or having a bad day. But I’m ok with that. I know how to prepare myself for a bad day and get myself ready for the good days that will come after it.
I have aphasia too. At first I couldn’t really speak, then with the help of the Stroke Association’s Communication Plus Group, more words came back. It was fantastic – it’s the reason I’m able to talk to you now. But I can’t read or write, which means I can’t go back to being a teacher. So now my job is to help other stroke survivors. Volunteering has opened up a massive opportunity for me. I’m recycling myself into something else and helping to make things better for other people.
Stroke for me was a pause, not the end of the story. It was a chapter in the middle. The semi-colon in the middle of a sentence that means there’s more to come. With the Rebuilding Lives campaign, I want to change other people’s stories and help them to see there’s happiness and hope on really bad days.”