I’ll never forget the day I woke up with the worst headache of my life. It was pounding.
I’d been out the night before with the girls, but I knew it wasn’t a hangover – I’d only had two pints.
After another hour’s sleep and still not feeling any better, I hoped a shower might help. I was about to turn on the water when I felt a searing pain – like a mini explosion – in my head. I collapsed into the bath and everything went black.
When I came around, I couldn’t talk or feel my left side. All I knew was that I was lying in the bath.
‘Right OK, what’s happened?,’ I thought. I tried to pull myself up but I couldn’t. I began to panic and, unable to feel my left side, I wondered if I’d had a stroke.
Then my partner Andrew appeared from the bedroom. He scooped me up, dialled 999 and helped me back into my pyjamas.
Soon paramedics arrived, strapped me to a board and I was aware of the chaos around me.
I heard a voice: ‘We have a 39-year-old female with suspected head injury due to a fall at home.’ So I said: ‘I didn’t fall, I collapsed after feeling something explode in my head.’ Then I screamed out in pain and the world escaped me once more.
Next thing I knew, I couldn’t move or open my eyes. But I could hear machines beeping and doctors talking, then voices I recognised. It was my family.
I wanted to scream ‘I can hear you!’ – but I was trapped in my own body.
When I finally could open my eyes, a week later, I saw Andrew, my mum and dad sitting at my side.
A doctor explained I’d had an uncommon and serious subarachnoid haemorrhagic stroke, which means there is bleeding on the surface of the brain. I had been taken straight into theatre to have metal coils fitted in my head to block blood flow to the aneurysm.
But during surgery I’d suffered a second stroke. The operation to coil my ruptured aneurysm had caused another bleed – an intracerebral haemorrhage – and the pressure on my brain was so severe that half of my skull had to be permanently removed to save my life.
I was told I’d gone into theatre in the morning, about 9am, and my family hadn’t seen me until midnight.
Mum told me she hadn’t been able to find me on the ward because I was unrecognisable due to being bruised, swollen and bandaged.
I also discovered I had then been in a medically induced coma for a week – the doctors said it was a miracle I’d survived.
When I woke up, I was really confused and drowsy. Weirdly though, I didn’t feel pain – perhaps due to the drugs I had been given. I felt helpless not being able to move, despite trying to.
Andrew and my parents told me they’d informed family and friends about what had happened. Then my thoughts turned to something else – Andrew and I were meant to be getting married in just five months.
I’d organised most of it, including our gorgeous country barn venue and the dress of my dreams. I agreed we should cancel the upcoming hen do but refused to cancel our big day.
Two weeks later, I had my picture taken for a Facebook post, so friends could see how I was doing. It was the first time I’d seen myself since the stroke.
My long blonde hair had been shaved on one side and my head stitched up. There was a dip where the skull had been removed, but luckily it wasn’t too obvious.
The doctors decided not to fit the metal plate I needed in my head before the wedding as it meant I would have more stitches and bruises.
In the meantime, I had to wear a blue helmet until I got the plate fitted and was closely monitored. I also could not be left alone.
With my left side paralysed, I was keen to start physio as recommended by the doctors, but I felt so nauseous. Every time I tried to move, I was sick.
It was four weeks after my stroke that I was finally able to stand up. It felt like a huge achievement, but I had a long way to go.
One day, a chaplain came to see me and Andrew, and told us we could get married in hospital. But we told him we wanted to do it as we’d planned.
Ten days after I’d learned to stand, I was moved to a rehab hospital where I started full physiotherapy, with my goal to walk down the aisle.
I pushed myself to the limit with physio and occupational therapy twice a week. I started with the doctors getting me to sit up and stay up, as well as balancing exercises supported by a physio – until finally I took my first steps. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Later that day, I surprised Andrew and my father-in-law by getting up out of my wheelchair and walking towards them using a stick. I cried like a baby and they were both in floods of tears too.
When I next saw my reflection, it was far worse than the first time. The swelling had gone down, meaning the dip was now a large dent. Half my head was missing.
I imagined standing next to my groom looking how I did and burst into tears. But it only made me more determined.
After three more weeks of working with the bars and treadmill to get my gait back, I was discharged. I had been in hospital for four long months.
Now we had just four weeks to go, but there was a problem. I’d lost three stone, meaning my dream dress no longer fit me. I visited the boutique, and the owner held me up while refitting my dress.
She also gifted me a beaded lace headband to cover the hole in my head. I absolutely loved it. It was such a thoughtful gift and I was emotional knowing I would be able to cover the dent.
Then days after ticking off the final tasks on my to-do list, the day we’d all been waiting for arrived.
In the morning, I got ready in a cottage within our venue, Pencoed House Estate, Wales.
Mum and the boutique owner helped me into my dress, and I adjusted the matching headband atop of my newly cropped hair. Looking in the mirror, I decided I actually looked quite beautiful, despite everything I’d been through.
I grabbed my walking stick that our florist had decorated and made my way to the barn.
The doctors had allowed me to get married without wearing my helmet on the condition that my dad and brother walked me down the aisle, in case I fell.
So I put my stick to the side and – with my brother and dad either side of me – I took a deep, shaky breath and walked down the aisle towards my groom.
Everyone turned around and just seeing their encouraging faces made me well up with tears.
The moment wasn’t exactly as I’d planned, but I felt so lucky to even be there. It was my proudest moment.
Andrew was looking over his shoulder at me and we both smiled as I joined him. We exchanged our vows and were thrilled to become husband and wife.
Throughout the day, I couldn’t stand for long periods of time, so often sat down to rest.
Later we had our first dance, or more of a sway, to Blue’s Best in Me. The whole day was exhausting, but the most magical memory.
We had to cancel our honeymoon to New York and Boston, and the month after our wedding I had surgery to fit a metal plate in my skull. Unfortunately, it caused me to develop epilepsy.
I’ve adjusted now as I know the signs of a seizure coming on, and triggers, but it was frightening at the start as I didn’t want to be left alone.
My seizures mainly come at night, so if my husband goes away we arrange for my mum to come and stay with me and sleep beside me.
Looking back I’m glad they did the surgery after the wedding, as epilepsy would have been another stress hanging over me.
Since then, now living in Northern Ireland with Andrew, I’ve been learning to live with my acquired brain injury. I still suffer with weakness on my left-side and can’t move my toes at all.
It is scary to think I could have another stroke and doctors have told me I can’t have children – it’s too risky for my health. Hearing this was heartbreaking but I felt lucky to even be alive so I tried not to dwell on it. I was just grateful I had so many nieces and nephews – and my dog Buster and cat Bod – to dote on.
Now I try not to dwell on the risks but live in the moment, feeling grateful for what I have, not what I haven’t.
I work full-time in HR and love married life.
On the day of my stroke, the paramedics had to cut me out of my pyjamas. Andrew kept them, telling everyone that as long as he had them, he knew I’d come back to him.
Funnily enough, I came out of the coma on the anniversary of the day we first met.
We have been through such an uncertain and scary time. But through it all, there was one thing I never doubted – that Andrew was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
Stroke Association can offer support. Visit stroke.org.uk
As told to Julia Sidwell
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