Thursday, December 21, 2017

Danae Penn shares her story of stroke

My husband Roger and I lived in Belgium, but in May 1995 he was in England for a submariners meeting where he suffered a stroke and was taken to Milton Keynes NHS Trust Hospital after a dangerous delay because the ambulance drivers insisted on him telling them his name – and he was too aphasic to be able to do that. His submariner friends told me the bad news and I used our holiday insurance policy to get to the hospital and to bring him back to Belgium.

Back in Belgium hospital care could begin at last. A physiotherapist examined his paralysed leg and told me that he would walk again. The neurologist was less optimistic about other success until Roger copied a square, a circle and a triangle (with his left hand). Apparently, that meant that his mind was OK. Both specialists were 100% correct.

Four weeks later he was transferred to the Brugmann Hospital, a local hospital designed by the famous Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta, and built in 1911. The Brugmann rehabilitation department treated its patients as clients and not as sick objects of minimal care. Stroke survivors were brought back into daily life. Their spouse or nearest family member was obliged to be there every afternoon between 4 and 7 pm and between 2 and 7 pm in weekends. We were a friendly group who learned how to help a hemiplegic person to dress, eat and drink by themselves as much as possible. We wheeled them around the hospital park grounds and bought them ice creams outside it. Roger entered the Brugmann as a patient; two days later he had already become a person again.
Ten weeks later I was told to take Roger home on Saturday, returning to the Brugmann next day. The following week he spent the weekend at home. And then he was discharged from the hospital with all the arrangements already made for Solange, a physiotherapist living near us, to spend an hour each day improving his mobility, which meant that I could go back to work full-time, and for Agnes, an English-speaking speech therapist, to come to our flat twice a week. She managed to get him to talk (a bit) and to write with his left hand.

One afternoon each month Roger and I would return to the Brugmann for the meeting of his stroke club in the Rehabilitation Library. He loved doing this. It was run by the senior speech therapist of the Brugmann. Only aphasic people were allowed to talk, or try to talk. People shared their triumphs and their difficulties. Spouses had to be strictly silent until we had coffee at the end of the two-hour meeting. Sometimes we watched a film which had been made jointly by them, Paris aphasics, Swiss aphasics and Quebec aphasics.

We learned how to go on holiday by train, and sometimes I took Roger with me on business trips by air. Almost always, transport staff, hotel and restaurant staff were full of empathy and practical help. Twice I managed to arrange for a physiotherapist to come to the hotel an hour each day to help Roger’s mobility. Sometimes hotel guests were friendly, but regrettably sometimes they looked straight through us as if we were made of cellophane.

However, after five years of coping with our new way of life Roger’s health got worse and his doctor said we should live in a warmer, drier climate than Belgium. Roger was a geographer. He picked up a road atlas and pointed to the departément of Gers, in south-west France. I said that we did not know that area nor did we know anyone living there.  Why not some other part of France? No, it had to be the Gers because the climate was best there. He was 100% correct.

Therefore we put our cat in a cattery and took the train to Agen, and a taxi to Condom in the Gers. House-hunting only took four weeks and we returned to Belgium to sell our flat and move ourselves, our cat and all our possessions to Condom. We embarked on a new life, finding much help and friendliness from French neighbours and paramedics. Roger continued to have physiotherapy treatment every day, and some speech therapy. We enjoyed our new life in the countryside, and the cat embarked on his new life catching rabbits in our enormous garden. And the dry, warm climate was wonderful.

Five years later, though, Roger fell in the kitchen and broke his hip. He survived the operation but only for a few weeks. Years of medicines had weakened his body too much and he died in April 2005. I decided to continue living in France but that I had to use my time intelligently. Roger had been a writer, so I thought I should try to be one too and to write a novel – and my novel would have to include a hero who was aphasic, hemiplegic, and intelligent. Do visit my website at and let me know what you think of it.

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