The first thing Rachel remembered was waking up in intensive care. She didn’t know where she was, why she couldn’t see, and more importantly, who the strange woman talking to her at her bedside was.
It was a blood clot from an aneurism in her leg that caused her to have a stroke at age 18, just a couple of weeks into her first year at university. “It’s just bad luck I think,” Rachel, now 27, tells me. She hadn’t known about the aneurism or the subsequent stroke that would occur; there had been no warning signs. But there she’d ended up nevertheless, lying in a hospital bed listening to the persistent sound of machines beeping, the sterile smell of her surroundings wafting up her nose.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Rachel recalls, describing how her sight had disappeared, too. The loss of her eyesight only served to intensify the sound of a scared elderly patient on the ward bed next to her, screaming out for a nurse because they thought they were dying. “I can remember that like it was yesterday.”
What Rachel couldn’t remember, however, was anything else. In some kind of warped Finding Nemo reality, Rachel appeared to have become a human version of Dory the fish, forgetting everything she knew approximately every 10 seconds. “I’d say to my mum, ‘Where am I? What’s happened?’ and she would try to reassure me,” Rachel says. “But then I’d ask, ‘Who are you?’ because I couldn’t recognise that it was my mum speaking.”
That cycle repeated over and over again. The only means Rachel’s mother had of letting her daughter know who she was, was to spray the perfume she’d always worn around her bedside. Temporarily, Rachel would smell it and understand that it was her mum. But just like that, her recognition would disappear again,.
“I couldn’t remember I’d started university”
“I could remember that I had finished school, but I couldn’t remember that I’d started university,” recalls Rachel. “I could remember some of my friends but not all of them. The friends that I’d had forever I could remember, but newer friends I couldn’t.”
As the weeks passed, Rachel began to regain her sight, but she remained extremely disoriented. Lying in a hospital bed with her knees up, she couldn’t immediately see her feet. “I thought the doctors had cut my legs off,” Rachel says. “I kept saying to my mum, ‘Where are my legs? Where are my feet?’ And she’d say, ‘They’re here Rachel’. But seconds later I’d forget and ask again. It was scary.”
Eventually, Rachel’s fear turned to frustration as she began to cling on to memories and understanding for longer periods of time. With this, however, came the realisation that she’d lost the ability to carry out the most basic of tasks – including reading and writing.
Upon her return home after six weeks in hospital, Rachel struggled with the everyday things. “I would go into the bathroom to use the loo and forget why I’d gone in there, so I’d come out and five minutes later I’d need the loo again. I’d be repeating that about 10 or 12 times before I actually went to the toilet,” Rachel tells me. “In the shower, I’d forget that I’d washed my hair so I’d wash it over and over again. We had to stick a laminated list on the shower wall so I could tick off all the things I needed to do as I went.”
While her long-term memory began rapidly improving, Rachel’s short term memory was still badly affected and she struggled to socialise. “If I met somebody new, within 10 minutes of talking to them I wouldn’t have a clue who they were,” she recalls.
Courtesy of Rachel Farrant
Rachel’s independence suffered a lot. The stroke had left her physically impaired, unable to walk to begin with, so she’d frequently drop things or fall over as she regained her ability to move. “I had to have help on the stairs and I wasn’t really allowed to move unless there was somebody there making sure I didn’t fall over,” Rachel says. “It was frustrating. Even if I wanted to go to the toilet I always had to have my mum, my dad or my brothers there with me. They never made me feel weird or uncomfortable about it, though.”
Another knock back
As an 18-year-old girl who, pre-stroke, had just moved away to university, Rachel longed to get her life and her independence back. When she was well enough, she got a job back at the nightclub she’d previously worked at (“it was great because I already knew the staff there and they knew what I’d been through, so when I dropped a £100 bottle of vodka nobody shouted at me!”) and she made plans to return to university in London the following September.
It didn’t work out, however. “I was living in halls and I couldn’t look after myself.” When Rachel’s parents came to pick her up to bring her home for the second time, they found a mountain of crockery on the floor of their daughter’s shower. “I couldn’t work out how pots and pans got clean. I couldn’t put two and two together. I knew it was something to do with water but I couldn’t make the connection properly, so I just piled them all up in my shower,” she recalls.
“I couldn’t look after myself”
The move home for a second time proved difficult for Rachel. “It was like a whole other knock back. I’d been so focused towards going back to uni with my recovery, that to have to admit I actually wasn’t ready was really tough.”
Rachel decided to take some more time out to focus on getting better before returning to education. She practiced mechanisms to deal with her memory issues, and learnt to read and write again. “Now, when I meet somebody new, I have to pick a prominent physical feature on that person, and I say it over and over again along with their name. That helps me remember who the person is the next time I see them,” explains Rachel of the techniques she still uses today.
When she did finally go back to university, she chose one closer to home and stayed living with her mum and dad. Incredibly, Rachel went on to get a degree in law, and is now well on her way to becoming a lawyer. In the years following her stroke, despite being told she may never walk again at one point, Rachel began running, and last month she completed her second London Marathon in aid of the Stroke Association. She raised £2700 for the charity that’s helped her immensely.
It’s not all been plain sailing, though. Rachel’s mental health suffered as she struggled to come to terms with everything that had happened to her, and her confidence suffered a huge knock especially when it came to social interactions. But she’s proved her own resilience and determination.
“Obviously I’d rather I never had the stroke, but in some ways it’s had a positive impact on my life,” Rachel says reflectively, almost 10 years later. “It’s made me more confident, more understanding of what other people might be going through, and it’s taught me that nothing’s impossible. If you want something and you’re willing to work hard enough for it, then it’s achievable,” she says.
And that’s one important life lesson – but what a way to learn it.
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There are more than 100,000 strokes in the UK each year, and over 1.2 million people in the UK are living with the effects of stroke. The Stroke Association’s Helpline (0303 303 3100) provides information and support on stroke. More information can be found here.