Rehab helped stroke survivor get life back

Bonnie Belec
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Report released today emphasizes its importance

First in a two-part series.
Sheila Farrell is walking, talking proof that rehabilitation can help a person get their life back after having a stroke.

Sheila Farrell is a stroke survivor who says rehabilitation was instrumental in helping her to recover from the effects of her stroke. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

But you need access to it, and support and determination, says the 58-year-old St. John’s woman, who had a stroke in 2010.

She wasn’t involved in the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s 2014 report on the health of Canadians —  being released today — but she has a lot to say about her experience with a condition that affects 1.6 million Canadians.

“It can happen in an instant,” said the mother and grandmother, snapping her fingers.

“But the Miller Centre and the team there gave me my life back. It’s a wonderful place with a wonderful team,” said Farrell, who once worked with the city of St. John’s as an information technology project co-ordinator.

Farrell said during her one-year rehabilitation regime she met many people from across the island and says she was fortunate to be able to access services close to home.

“The finances, being away from home — some people I saw

were very sad,” she said sympathetically.

“How can they get the quality of rehab they need? Services should be in more centres than what we have,” said Farrell, pointing out that when a person has a stroke, their driver’s licence is taken away from them initially, so they become reliant on others for transportation.

The foundation’s report, released today in conjunction with Heart Month, looks at findings from a poll of 2,000 heart attack and stroke survivors (and their loved ones) and asks if they are able to make and maintain potentially life-saving behaviour changes and if they are receiving the support they need to recover and thrive to the fullest.

The report also asks questions about the state of rehabilitation in Canada and the challenges around access.

“Cardiac rehabilitation plays a critical role in improving outcomes for heart attack survivors,” says the report, adding that rehabilitation is also key to recovery for stroke survivors.

According to the poll, for those who reported attending a rehabilitation program, eight in 10 said it had a major or moderate impact on helping them recover.

However, the report says rehabilitation referral rates are unacceptably low, and while rehab can’t reverse all of the effects of cardiovascular disease, it supports survivors in innumerable ways.

“Given the clear benefits of rehabilitation, the low number of survivors referred to these programs is troubling,” states the document.

“Evidence shows that only about one third of cardiac survivors who are eligible for rehabilitation are referred to a program.”

Only 19 per cent of all stroke patients are discharged from acute care to a rehabilitation facility, and for the patients with moderate to severe stroke who would benefit most from rehabilitation, only 37 per cent are discharged to a rehab facility.

“There are also gaps within the health system — including a lack of services and information — and there are barriers to accessing rehabilitation services,” it concludes.

Of those who were referred, only six in 10 completed the program. The report cited anxiety and depression as barriers that prevented people from participating. Other barriers identified from the poll were cost, wait lists, lack of space and distance.

It was two weeks after Farrell’s 55th birthday that she had the stroke.

She told The Telegram in a recent interview that she woke up in bed one morning and went to get up, but her body wouldn’t listen.

She lay there for more than four hours before someone found her. She didn’t even know she couldn’t speak until she was spoken to.

Her green eyes widen as she recalls the event.

“Before that day I had a career in IT. I was an IT project manager with the city. It was a demanding and stressful job, but I was healthy, ate right, exercised — all the things you are supposed to do for healthy living,” she said, sitting on her living room couch.

“I didn’t get to hospital in time for the drug to reverse the effects of the blood clot. I was alone in my house for 4 1/2 hours before somebody came home to find me. I didn’t call for help because I was paralyzed on the right side of my body and I could not move in my bed.

“I woke up and said to myself, you got to get up. My body wouldn’t respond to my mind. I was not afraid. I opened my mouth to speak and I could say nothing. The first word I could say was wow,” Farrell said.

She had two warning signs two days before it happened — an extreme headache and weakness in her right knee, but not knowing what the symptoms were she just brushed it off.

“That is why it is so important healthy individuals should know what the signs are.”

She was discharged from the Health Sciences Centre two weeks after the stroke, and didn’t know what had caused it.

Seven weeks later she suffered three mini-strokes and was sent to a specialist.

Farrell said for the first time she was frightened because she had to have emergency surgery on her carotid artery — bits of plaque were falling off it and migrating to her brain.

 She said she continued with her life-saving, life-altering rehabilitation at the Miller Centre, where she had to relearn the alphabet and how to regain control of her body.

“They teach you how to create a new normal. I got my mobility back, thank you, God,” she says putting her hands to her chest.

For a year, Farrell said she was back and forth to the Miller Centre learning how to write and spell again.

“I can tell you, learning your ABCs at  55 is a lot more difficult than when you’re five. Ugh!” she says smiling.

Farrell has done several interviews, MC’d galas on behalf of the Heart and Stroke Foundation and shared her story — all for the sake of education.

“I don’t do it for myself, not ever. But I do it to make people aware of the signs to look for,” she said.

“My life has changed, but I am truly blessed and thankful because I have so much to live for.”


Tomorrow: Not time to go

Organizations: Miller Centre, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Health Sciences Centre

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Gloria Vardy
    February 05, 2016 - 01:10

    I have known Sheila since our child raising years together--she has always been such a positive person with a magnetic personality. So happy to see that she hasn't lost either in this battle and the strength and stamina to get her life back is such an inspiration to us all. Kudos to her great attitude and those at rehab for making it all so possible....keep smiling girl!!!

  • Sarah Colbourne
    February 04, 2016 - 22:24

    I, like Ms. Farrell had a stroke , Dec. 11 , 2014 , there are a couple of differences . 1. my stroke was a bleed , on my brain . 2. Time , everything fell into place for me , 2-5 mins after, my stroke , I was in an ambulance , I will say within 30 mins , I was in emerge. I spent 12 days there ,not in emerge, but in the hospital in St.Anthony , so far from all the things I needed. Dec.23 ,2014 , I got a bed at the Miller Center. I spent 7 weeks there where I learned to do everything over again , including to write my own name . The people there were awesome , they cared for me and taught me , prepared me for the world I had to re-enter.These people will never get all the credit for the things they do for people. By the way , a week I spent there was spent in isolation with influenza , no physio , not even a shower . I also spent part of a week with xmas and new Years .BUT I will preach the Miller Center , as much as it would be nice to have them everywhere , we have to be realistic , but if it could be made accessible to more people , would be good .It would be better to have 1 Center with more people having access.When I left The Miller Center there was no physio anywhere near me , NONE . within 400 kms. of me , no gym , no nothing and only for my determination , I would be in a wheel chair , now. My point is how many people don't have the determination , how many people go home to home care , in wheel chairs , with walkers . Sarah, 709-623-2095 I am not back to work , yet , by choice , because , I worked as a E.M.R. (Emergency Medical Responder) and am debating if I want to go back to what I feel helped cause my stroke

  • Lisa
    February 05, 2014 - 19:48

    I am the mother of a one year old boy, who just three weeks after he was born suffered a stroke. Since his diagnosis one year ago this last January,he has been involved in the rehab program at the Janeway. He has come a long way and been through a lot in his shot life, but thanks to the rehab team at the Janeway we see continual improvement. I have heard about Sheila through family and friends and her story is inspirational. I often think that if an adult can relearn as much as she had to in her rehabilitation, then my little guy has a great chance at overcoming this struggle too. Congratulations to you Sheila on all of your hard work, and to those supporting you at the miller centre for providing you with the care you needed to recover.

  • Marilyn Burridge
    February 03, 2014 - 20:07

    So happy for you Sheila, that you got some kind of normal life back. Stroke can be so devastating. Hope you continue on the road of healthy living. Take care and I look forward to reading the rest of your story tomorrow. Good job.

  • Jeanette Behie (Spurrell)
    February 03, 2014 - 19:33

    just read article about your road to recovery. My son chris has informed of your progess over the years and wanted to let you know I have thought of you often. I wish you the best for a complete recovery. Jeanette Behie Houston, Texas

  • Sheilagh Burke
    February 03, 2014 - 10:18

    You are an inspiration Sheila and you have great strength...thanks!

  • Barbara Baldwin
    February 03, 2014 - 09:48

    I have met Sheila and am amazed at her story, I had heart surgery in 1998 and went through the Eastern Health Cardiac Program which was then at the old Grace hospital residence. When the residence closed, there was a group of former patients of the program who formed the Newfoundland Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, which has operated without funding from the government or Eastern Health for 12 years, We accept all graduates from the Eastern Health's Cardiac Program. We are saving the health care money as we are taking care of our own health. .

  • Darrell
    February 03, 2014 - 09:45

    What a beautiful lady and wonderful story. Kudos to her and the Miller Centre.

  • Anne Marie Woolridge
    February 03, 2014 - 07:41

    I have known Sheila for a very long time and the one thing that always comes to mind when I think of her is her positive attitude toward life and her kind and loving spirit. She is an inspiration to me in how she lives her life. Her warm smile lights up any room she enters and I am so proud to say I know her. Thank you Sheila for not giving up on life; this world just wouldn't be the same without you.

  • Father's Daughter
    February 03, 2014 - 07:03

    My father had a serious stroke last year and spent 3 months at the Miller Centre. After discharge, his rehab continued and now, a year later, he still participates in their regular stroke survivors meeting. Our family cannot say enough good things about the talented and compassionate personnel at the Miller Centre. They held out hope even when we lost ours. And they were right - Dad went from not being able to get out of bed to driving and resuming many of his normal activities. We live in town, so not so hard for us, but (like many things), quite a bit more difficult to take advantage of these services when you live in a smaller centre.