The shopping trip that saved the lecturer’s life

“I remember saying to my father [who died in 1998], ‘Help me out’,” says Norita Ni Chartúir who got a stroke when she was fifty three years of age. 
Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

“I remember saying to my father [who died in 1998], ‘Help me out’,” says Norita Ni Chartúir who got a stroke when she was fifty three years of age. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

When Gearóidín Uí Loideáin contacted her friend Norita one day two years ago and said she was taking her to the city for some retail therapy little did she realise that that trip to the shops would save her friend's life.

Thursday September 20 2018 began like any other day for Norita Ni Chartúir, a lecturer in radio journalism on the Cumarsáid agus Gaeilge degree course at NUI Galway. Gearóidín rang her that morning saying she wanted to take her to town.

At first, Norita said "no" to her "dear friend" which was unusual. She did not feel she had the energy for a day out. That morning she felt exhausted, in fact she had been feeling extremely tired for the previous few days.

As fate would have it, a power cut meant she was unable to work so she accepted Gearóidín's offer and her friend collected her at her office at the university's Irish language centre in Carraroe. What happened next would result in Norita, who was 53 years old at the time, fighting for her life.

"I was in the car with her and lit a sneaky fag and it dropped out of my hand," recalls Norita. "I knew instantly I was getting a stroke. We were somewhere around Barna at the time. I remember trying to pick it up [the cigarette] but I couldn't get it. When I bent over, my left side was gone."

She cares for her mother who had a stroke when she was 76 years old so she recognised the warning signs. "I was familiar with it. I had read all the leaflets."

She asked her friend if she were having a stroke. "Gearóidín said 'Yes'. I knew my goose was cooked! I remember bowing my head down on my folded arms and saying that this was what happened to my mother."

When they arrived at University Hospital Galway (UHG ) her friend ran up to the security man on duty at the emergency department screaming: 'My friend has had a stroke.' "I opened the car door and I fell into his arms. My left side was gone."

Norita, who has strong devotion to guardian angels, describes Gearóidín, who told her afterwards that she had a persistent feeling the night before that she should take her to Galway, as her first guardian angel. Her second one was Dr Michelle Canavan, a calm and kind doctor, who treated her at UHG.

"All I remember saying [in hospital] was: 'Don't register me as Norita Carter, I'm Norita Ní Chartúir.' At that stage my left hand and leg were gone and my voice was going. The clot had travelled from my heart to my head. The medication didn't work so I had to go to Beaumont Hospital."

She travelled by ambulance to Dublin but she has no recollection of the journey as she believes she slept because of the medication. Her strongest memory is of leaving Galway and feeling overwhelmed. Not by fear that her life was in danger or that she might never say goodbye to her loved ones but by a tremendous sadness.

"I was leaving Galway and it was the only time that I was losing control. I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. That was the journey that I had to do on my own. I remember saying to my father: [who died in 1998], 'Help me out'."

Her "third angel" in the form of Dr John Thornton, a consultant interventional neuroradiologist and clinical lead for strokes, was waiting for her at Beaumont Hospital. She remembers thinking during her relaxed, medicated state that he had a lovely face and wondered if he had any movie star relations.

"He was very goodlooking and very polite, calm, and kind. I asked him: 'Are you any relation of the Thornton [the lead character played by John Wayne] in the film, The Quiet Man! He said he didn't think so. I asked him again and he laughed.

"He extracted the clot [from her brain] in one go. It was like lightening. I was probably sedated but I could feel everything. I remember thinking: 'This is what it feels like to pull an alien out of your head! I lifted my leg up and he said: 'She's back'. That's how instantaneous it is. My head, legs, and arms were back."

She rang her husband, John, and her sister to tell them the good news. Norita's consultant, Mr Thornton, and Gearóidín had telephoned him earlier.

"John is a farmer and was on his way home with a load of hay when John Thornton rang him. My husband asked him what were my chances and he answered 50/50. John [her husband] doesn't do crying. He went to my mother as she was on her own. What must it have been like for him?"

She was impressed by the calmness of the hospital staff at both UHG and Beaumont Hospital. "There was no noise, no hullabaloo, no panic. I got exemplary care in Galway, it is an excellent hospital. I didn't have health insurance but I got the same care [as private patients]. They couldn't have done any better. I had to be sent to Dublin for the thrombectomy [an innovative surgical procedure used to remove blood clots from arteries and veins]. That service is needed in Galway, I shouldn't have had to go to Dublin for it."

Norita, who lives in Cinn Mhara, three miles from Casla, remained at Beaumont Hospital overnight before returning to UHG. She spent less than a week in all in hospital. She was conscious of how fortunate she had been not only to survive the stroke but to return quickly to good health. Most of all, she was grateful to her friend Gearóidín who acted on her strong instinct to take Norita shopping.

"If I had stayed in the office in Carraroe I'd be dead. What I remember of the week [in hospital] is how lucky I was. I thanked God over and over. I'd be a person who would say my prayers and go to church. I'd be a goody two shoes!"

She believes in the power of prayer and is grateful to all the people who prayed for her recovery. "Gearóidín's friend rang her and asked for my full name as her uncle had the prayer for stroke and he said it for me. I never heard of it before.

"When I was in the stroke ward, there were seriously ill people all around me and I felt a bit of a fraud. Others couldn't get out of bed but I was talking and I could dress myself.

"I was dying to get out as it reminded me of the horrific effect that stroke can have on you. I made friends there and we used to have the greatest craic."

The former broadcaster with Raidió na Gaeltachta took six months off work to recover from the stroke. "Michelle Canavan, [her doctor at UHG] told me that having a brain attack was like being hit by a juggernaut. They warned me of tiredness so I took time off."

She embraced normality and got up every day as if it were a working day, spending her time decluttering and doing some "light reading".

"I got back to my stride fairly quickly. The attitude I had was: I got a stroke, I got away with it, and now it is time to get on with life." But she observed the need for rest knowing it was important for her recovery.

"For a whole month afterwards I went to bed early. I was a divil for staying up late before that. I didn't have the extreme tiredness but I had a problem with my left leg. There was a tear in the muscle that helps you walk. I felt I was limping a bit but you don't go through a stroke without it leaving its mark, it is not just a blip on the horizon. I consider that I got away lightly and luckily I met guardian angels."

A week after returning home from hospital Norita faced a further challenge. Part of a machine collapsed on top of her husband and he sustained broken bones in the accident. "I remember saying to myself: What angels have we protecting us? I consider myself and him so lucky."

Norita says surviving a stroke has opened her eyes to many things, such as the help we receive from our guardian angels, the importance of family and friends, and the need to treat other people with compassion.

"I'm more mindful of people, you have to be kinder because you can really do damage. I would always have been a listener and a talker. I'm acutely aware that people need help and that when they tell you a titbit, the floodgates might open. I'm more aware of that now. I try and see what is going on behind the scenes for them. You only get one shot to help and rectify things."

She attended a course run by Croí, the local heart and stroke charity which she found very beneficial. She also gave up smoking and rarely drinks. "The biggest challenge is that I have to lose weight. It had been a rollercoaster for two years but I believe life is beautiful."

She is grateful for the spiritual help she received. "I remember in primary school I would always say the guardian angel prayer. I recited it so often and [later] I followed the stories of people who had angel experiences. My mother used to say to pray to our guardian angels and for them."

Her brush with mortality taught her to appreciate life. "'Either get busy living or get busy dying' is a saying from the film The Shawshank Redemption and that became my motto from Day 1. I saw the stroke as a second opportunity, a reason to evaluate my life."

She says people will "most definitely" know if they are having a stroke. "If you see somebody (even on the street ) who seems like they are drunk, their speech is distorted, they have no function of their arms, don't walk by. They need help and they need it very quickly. I try to educate people as best I can about stroke. They need to know the signs because it can happen to anyone - the face drooping, can you lift your arms over your head? is your speech impaired?, and time is of the essence. Do not wait, you need to get to A&E.

"I cannot fault University Hospital in Galway, they were magnificent. Michelle Canavan explained to me that one of the biggest things that can happen after a stroke is that you can get very frightened that it will happen again. I've often thought up in bed if there was a tweak, is that another one? I didn't get the headache originally. I don't feel afraid now. If it comes I'll have to deal with it. I don't want to go but I'm not afraid to go."

Facts about stroke

As many as one in five people in Galway will have a stroke at some time in their lives. About 300 to 350 cases of the condition are recorded here each year, 25 per cent of which occur in people under 65 years.

Some 10 per cent are fatal while 30 to 40 per cent result in moderate to severe disability. The remainder suffer mild or no disability.

The number of stroke cases are likely to rise by 50 per cent over the next decade mostly due to our ageing population.

"A stroke is to the brain, what a heart attack is to the heart", says Neil Johnson, the CEO of the local heart and stroke charity Croí. Stroke is one of the biggest causes of death and disability across the world.

Speaking in advance of World Stroke Day which takes place today (Thursday ) he said a stroke, which is a blood clot or bleed in the brain, can be fatal.

"It can cause death or cause irreversible damage to different parts of the brain which control our speech, thinking, or movement. Many causes of stroke are completely outside of our control. However, there are some causes which we can prevent, such as high blood pressure or untreated heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation."

To mark World Stroke Day, Croí is inviting people to a free webinar taking place today (Thursday ) from 7pm to 8.30pm to learn more about stroke.

A panel of UHG experts comprising Dr Niamh Hannon, a stroke specialist, Trish Galvin, an advanced purse practitioner in stroke care, and Ciara Breen, a senior occupational therapist will speak at the event. Norita Ní Chartúir will share her experience of surviving a stroke.

The webinar is supported by local company Surmodics (Ballinasloe ) who is a corporate partner to the Croi stroke programmes and supports.

Mr Johnson says people usually think of a stroke as an older person's issue. "But unfortunately the condition has no respect for age or gender. In fact, we are increasingly seeing more cases of ‘young and working age’ strokes.

"The impact of a stroke can be devastating both for survivors and their families. While incredible advances have been made in terms of stroke detection and treatment, we have a long way to go in Ireland in terms of stroke recovery and rehabilitation post-hospital discharge.”

To register for this free event log on to www.croi.ie/strokeday20

 

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