Stroke: ‘I had to cure myself’
Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul’s, on how, with the help of his mother-in-law, he devised his own program of recovery after a stroke
Suffering a stroke was not like having the carpet ripped from under one’s feet. The floor went as well. In a few hours, I was transformed from a healthy, professional 56-year-old into a lump of flesh on a hospital trolley.
The skills I had learnt as a child – standing up, writing, even holding a cup – had gone, and my speech was heavily slurred.
The first harsh realization was that something very bad had happened. The second was that nobody in the hospital was going to tell me how to get better (the only advice I received comprised vague noises about the need for “rehabilitation” and “exercises”). The third realization was a consequence of the first two: I had to get out of hospital and cure myself.
Bizarrely, I owe my recovery to my mother-in-law. Her husband had received almost no help when, in 2003, he had suffered a stroke in his seventies. So she had gone on the internet – as one does at 74 – and found that major strides had been made in America in treating stroke victims. Research there showed that damaged neural pathways could be re-routed, and that a diminished signal could be sent through the outer lining of an otherwise dead nerve. The key was speed. After three or four weeks, the brain seemed to start a permanent shut-down on these pathways.
So my mother-in-law invented a rehab program, a crucial part of which was making my father-in-law sit up in bed and bounce a tennis ball off the wall – she acted as a cross between a wicket keeper and a retriever. So I decided to bounce a tennis ball 2,000 times a day off the kitchen floor, missed catches not counting. At first it was a farce. I could hardly bounce the ball, never mind catch it. The first day it took four hours to reach the target.
Yet clearly more than bouncing a tennis ball was needed; I needed to identify the skills I had lost and re-learn them. For example, what use is a headmaster who can’t write? So I bought an A4 pad of lined paper, and wrote out the alphabet, one line per letter, for two hours a day. The first stabs were meaningless squiggles. An intense depression swept over me.
Using a keyboard proved no easier. When I tried to type my name, it read something like “nsar5un Sy4phwn”. I vowed to do 10 pages a day, typing out my corrections on my latest book with one finger. The first 10 pages took three days.
Headmasters need to speak, too, so I decided to recite the poems of Andrew Marvell for two hours a day, with a wine cork stuck between my front teeth, an old trick I remembered from suffering a stammer as a child. That way, you have to move the lips more to make any sense; it acts like a form of weight training.
A headmaster who can’t walk isn’t much use either. The problem was, when I did walk again, very slowly, I moved crab-like at a 45-degree angle. So I marched up and down the stripes on the lawn for two hours a day. When the foot crossed a stripe, there was a mental slap of wrist.
Finally, my wife bought me one of those old-fashioned children’s games where you have to pass a wire ring over an electrified wire without touching it, thus avoiding the irritating buzz. More fun was a computer game flying a virtual F15 jet – or, in my case, crashing it thousands of times on the runway before finally landing it – after 40 hours’ “flying” time. Well – sort of landing it. The undercarriage and one wing had broken off, but the computer said I was alive. The stupid game proved a turning point. Finally I had managed to achieve hand-to-eye co-ordination.
It took two-and-a-half months to get back to a semblance of normality, six months before I considered myself cured. I came close to giving up the grind of rehab. But by choosing tasks like writing the alphabet or counting how many times I could walk down the lawn without crossing a stripe, I could monitor my own progress.
The difference between success and failure was also the unfailing support of my wife, my three children and my employer – and a deep anger that I was not offered more help to start with. I am haunted still, three years on, by the thought of all the people who are not told that a stroke is not a death-knell, nor the end to a career or normal life. Sadly, not everyone has a mother-in-law like mine.
1 Bounced a tennis ball 2,000 times against a wall
2 Wrote out the alphabet, one line per letter, for two hours
3 Recited the poems of Andrew Marvell for two hours with a cork between his teeth
4 Marched up and down the stripes on the lawn for two hours, without touching where the stripes met
5 Played the F15 flight simulator game for two hours
Source: The Telegraph 2008