Robyn Leary is a journalist, stroke survivor, dreamer. In need of sleep and inspiration.
On May 27, 2012, also a sunny Sunday, I wasn’t standing, let alone jumping anywhere. In fact, I was in a heap on the floor beside my bed, desperately scrabbling with my one working hand, for my cellphone that had fortuitously fallen to the floor the night before.
I can’t remember much of the conversation that followed, other than telling my friend Vanessa to hurry as something was wrong. Later, I heard the paramedics saying I’d probably had a stroke. I was more concerned about the fact that I was still in my pyjamas.
The reality of my situation – the fact that I couldn’t move my left side – would sink in only days later in hospital. In the meantime, I believed there was nothing wrong with me aside from a really bad migraine; I was so certain I’d be walking out of hospital in a few days that I made a date with a friend to go swimming the next weekend. Even now, 11 months later, I can manage only a few wobbly laps of backstroke in the kiddies’ pool.
My state of denial was understandable: in my mid forties, in good health, a non-smoker – I was not exactly a prime candidate for a stroke. But there you go, the MRI said differently: an ischaemic attack affecting the right hemisphere of my brain, causing paralysis down my left side. In medical terminology, I was a hemiplegic.It’s a curious sensation: willing your fingers and toes to move, but failing miserably.
The message to move is relayed from your brain, but it doesn’t go anywhere.I’d focus all my energy into moving a digit a fraction, a smidge - but nothing. It was exhausting and frustrating.After two weeks in Claremont hospital, I was bundled off to the Life Rehab centre at Vincent Pallotti, where I was to take my first steps to recovery and where I would meet the first of my many “ists”: therapists (physio, psycho, speech, occupational), neurologists, nutritionists, phlebotomists, kinesiologist, optimists and pessimists.
It was also where I realised I was in a fair bit of trouble. At breakfast on my first morning there, I was confronted with the logistics of trying to eat a poached egg on toast when I couldn’t grasp a fork in my left hand.The next six weeks were filled with ups and downs: the joy of taking my first steps was tempered by the realisation that I could possibly never regain the use of my left hand, which would spell disaster for my career. I kept on telling myself, it could have been much worse: my cognitive and speech functions were left relatively intact – but, quite clearly my life would never be the same.
One of the first things that becomes evident in rehab is that no stroke is the same; and recovery rates differ from person to person: Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
So while some patients were struggling to walk, they had full use of their hands. I was the other way around.I started to walk relatively quickly but it was weeks and weeks before my left hand started to show even a flicker of movement.The days were filled with therapy sessions: learning to transfer yourself from your wheelchair to a bed or loo; how to bathe yourself, how to make toast; how to dress yourself. Dressing is still a bugger but at least I’ve stopped putting my trousers on back to front.
In July, I was “ready” for re-entry into the real world. So, there I was, a 45-year-old woman trapped in the body of an 80-year-old – in a wheelchair – living with my septuagenarian parents, who had flown down from KwaZulu-Natal. It’s supposed to be the other way round, isn’t it? Me looking after them. Instead my father had to tie my shoelaces.
I had given myself a tight schedule: by September I no longer needed the wheelchair and was back at work for a few hours a day; in November, I was back behind the wheel of a car, which meant saying goodbye to my folks.
It was at about this time that Desmond Bates, whom I’d met at outpatients therapy, first suggested I go paragliding with him and a few other stroke survivors. My first response was: “Absolutely not! You’re nuts.” But I changed my mind. Not only because I wanted to show a big middle finger to fate, but I wanted to turn my stroke into a positive, transformative experience.
At one point during my recovery, I was given the book My Stroke Of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, an account of the neuroscientist’s own stroke. One phrase stayed with me: “Show up for your life”. It is now tattooed on my left arm as a reminder not to take anything for granted.Fast-forward to Signal Hill and I’m getting strapped to my tandem pilot, Jacques.
Jan, another pilot with Para-Taxis, has flown with Desmond before, so he and his team are experienced in getting disabled folk into the air. Instead of having to run down the hill, I’m carried by two helpers until the chute pulls me aloft. And suddenly I’m flying. The pain that makes my daily life so difficult is wiped out by the wonder of floating through air.For the first time in almost a year, I’m comfortable in my body.The ride is all too short.My other journey has a way to go, but, finally, I know I’ll be okay.