One Sunday evening towards the end of July, I rang my mum for a chat. When she answered the phone, something wasn’t right. Her speech was a little slurred. I asked if she felt OK and she replied 'yes', she was fine, but had just got up from a nap. I wasn’t convinced and said that I’d call her back in a couple of minutes. I hung up and immediately searched for the symptoms of stroke.
I called my mum back and told her that I thought she was having a stroke. She disagreed and refused to call an ambulance, so I called 999 from London (she was in Falmouth) and an ambulance was dispatched. Later that evening, I called the hospital and was told that, sure enough, mum had suffered a stroke.
The following morning, I took the train down to Cornwall to see her. She was a little shaken up and still slurring slightly, but otherwise doing pretty well, all things considered. I ended up staying down in Cornwall for two weeks to take care of mum. During that time, we sat and did crosswords together (she is a serious cryptic crossword aficionado and was teaching me, with limited success), and walked in the hospital gardens.
On the Tuesday two weeks after her stroke, she was discharged and returned home. We spent the afternoon walking through Falmouth, visiting a few shops. When we returned home she started arranging the flowers I had bought her. Shortly afterwards, a healthcare assistant arrived for her first visit and explained what would happen over the coming weeks.
As we were talking, mum started making a sort of snoring noise even though she was awake and standing. I asked if she was OK but she looked straight through me and made no effort to respond. Her right side went completely limp and her face drooped. She was totally unable to speak.
I called 999 and while I waited for the ambulance, I realised that this one was different from the first. I could talk to her last time.
At the hospital, she was given a CT scan that confirmed a major left hemisphere ischemic stroke. I left mum with the medical team and hoped to get a few hours of sleep. I lay in bed crying, hoping desperately that mum wasn’t scared or in pain.
When I returned in the morning I hoped that she would be back to her old self or at least awake and with it. Sadly that was definitely not the case. Barely conscious and very confused, her condition was extremely worrying. So much so the doctors spoke to me about whether or not I wanted them to resuscitate her, should she need it, and whether to continue treatment if her condition stayed as it was. It was something that I’d thought about in an abstract way and seen in films and on TV but I was not ready for it to be about my mum and having to make the decisions myself. I wept. She might not make it, and if she did, she would never be the same.
I always thought of strokes as either being ‘mild’ and it having some effect on a person’s mobility or speech, or for them to be ‘massive’ and fatal. Mum’s was massive but it wasn’t fatal.
Fast forward six weeks, my previously independent, cryptic crossword-solving, classical music-loving, avid student of psychology mum was in a care home. She had almost complete aphasia. She couldn’t understand anything being said to her nor could she form coherent sentences. She could not read or follow instructions. The part of her brain that ‘understood’ food didn’t work, so she rarely ate or drank as she didn’t comprehend why she would need to. As a result, she was fed by a tube directly into her stomach after she kept pulling her nasal feeding tube out. Her quality of life was near enough zero.
Why am I telling you this? For one reason. Please have difficult conversations with your loved ones.
People can have living wills, laying out their wishes ahead of times such as this. It is hugely beneficial when there are decisions to be made around treatment.
Another thing to do is to get Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) set up for your parents. For more information about completing and registering LPA, visit GOV.UK.
Please learn the stroke symptoms and please have those conversations with your loved ones. I had no idea that this would happen. That morning my mum had been teaching me cryptic crosswords, by the evening she had the capacity of a one-year-old. Once that happens, it's too late to do anything about it.
Free Wills Month
Having an up-to-date Will is the best way to make certain family and friends are looked after, and prepare for whatever life may bring.
During March, anyone aged 55 and over can make or update a simple Will free of charge with a trusted solicitor. Please note that LPA is not covered by the Free Wills Month offer.