A few days before her 51st birthday in May 2016, Donna Mackenzie-Smyth had two strokes. “I was with my three grandchildren and my husband,” said Donna. “Suddenly, it felt like I'd been sliced in half. I was terrified that I might die in front of them.”
The effects of stroke - left-sided weakness, fatigue and cognitive problems - had a huge impact on Donna’s life. “I couldn't go back to work and had to rely a lot on my husband and family for help with washing, getting dressed - most things really.
“I’d always loved dressing in bright clothes and putting on make-up, but the fatigue meant I had no energy to make myself feel nice. When my friends visited, I saw in their faces how much stroke had impacted my world.”
With encouragement from her Stroke Association Support Coordinator, Donna started attending peer support groups. “The first time I went was out of curiosity really. Now I try not to miss any of them. To me, the value of peer support is immense. I don't think I’d be mentally where I am now if it wasn't for my group.”
Having worked in the beauty industry throughout her career and keen to give something back, Donna decided to set up beauty workshops to support stroke survivors and carers in her groups.
“After my stroke, I felt like I'd lost my identity. I decided I needed to feel better about myself. I've always believed that if you put on a bright lipstick, then no one looks at the rest of your face because they're looking at your lipstick! I found my lipsticks, put them on and it made me feel a bit better.
“I spoke to others who also had issues with how they felt. They didn’t want to look in the mirror because they had facial dropping, or if they were caring for someone, they felt guilty about spending time on themselves.
“So I set up a session and asked everybody to bring their make-up. I did a demonstration and we talked about how to feel good by putting on a small amount of make-up. It was wonderful. Sometimes, something like putting make-up back on can make you feel empowered, and help you to start addressing your issues.”
Donna’s top beauty tips
1. Keep it simple
My favourite product is a tinted moisturiser, as it gives you a bit of colour in your skin so you don't need to worry about applying moisturiser and foundation. A bit of eyebrow pencil and lipstick or lip gloss also helps me to feel more confident and cheerful.
2. Try before you buy
Go into stores and ask for free samples to take home. Or test them in-store to see if they’re right for you – for example, can you undo the lid? If you’re struggling, let the cosmetic consultant know that you’re a stroke survivor so they can help you to find products to suit you.
3. Make feeling good part of your recovery
I have a weakness in my left hand, so I make a point of squeezing make-up onto the back of my hand or arranging my make-up brushes in it, because it makes my brain aware that my left arm is still a part of my body. When my friends came to visit after my stroke, I asked them to bring their favourite colour nail polish and paint one of my toenails. Looking at the different colours reminded me of them and encouraged me to try to move my foot!
Donna is now a Stroke Ambassador and shares her story to raise awareness and help others to rebuild their lives after stroke. “Physically, life is still a real challenge, but mentally, I'm in a good place. I set myself daily goals. Ultimately, I'd like to go back to work. But sometimes just getting up is a good achievement. Recovery is slow but it does happen. You must keep going. You have more strength than you realise.”