Rehab helped stroke survivor get life back

Report released today emphasizes its importance

Bonnie Belec
Published on February 3, 2014
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

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.

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