Nightmare

What it’s like to have a stroke as a teenager

13th April 2018

In the UK, you are most likely to suffer a stroke if you’re over the age of 55. For men, it’s 74, for women, 80. There are more than 100,000 strokes here each year, which averages out at around one stroke every five minutes, and two-thirds of those people will return home with some form of permanent disability. Worldwide, someone will suffer a stroke every two seconds. In the time you’ve taken reading this paragraph, three people around the globe will have had a stroke. Worryingly, it can happen to anyone.

Now imagine that you’re a popular, sporty 16-year-old, about to do your GCSEs, ready to take part in a weekend challenge with your friends. It’ll be fun; doing something different instead of playing computer games or watching the telly and have a laugh in the process. Surely nothing can go wrong. Right?

In April last year, Ollie Crossley and his friends were taking part in a mud run similar to the charity event Tough Mudder, after one of them had seen it advertised on Facebook.

“I think we just decided in one of our lunch hours at school that we wanted to do something we hadn’t done before,” says Ollie.

“My friend saw it online and suggested it, and we thought why not? I didn’t prepare for it particularly, I was going to the gym about four times a week anyway and because it was only five kilometres, I didn’t feel like I needed to give myself a strenuous training programme. I’ve always been fit and active, so I wasn’t worried about it.”

On the day of the event, everything began as planned. Nothing was out of the ordinary. “I started my day quite normally. I remember I bought my ticket for Boardmasters festival that day with my dad. I wanted a haircut because I was going to Wembley the day after the run, it was for Oxford United as they are my local side and were in the play-off final. So, I went to the barbers, waited for an hour and a half, but the queue still wasn’t moving so I called my dad and told him he needs to pick me up; I couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. We went to one of my friends’ house to take him to the mud run, we arrived and then began to warm up.

When I saw my friends, who were probably fitter than me, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to show them I can beat them

“I started pretty well, there were three of my friends behind me and three in front. I’ve always been competitive so when I saw my friends, who were probably fitter than me, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to show them I can beat them. I remember running as I always do and then seeing an ambulance driving through, so I shouted to the driver that I hoped whoever was in trouble was okay. I even picked up a heavy sandbag for a bit to make the run harder. After that, there was a set of three obstacles, big triangle pieces of wood from what I can remember, which I had climb over. I think they were double my height!

“Everything was fine, and I remember talking to one of the volunteers and telling them to have a good day; I don’t really know why, I must have been trying to impress. The run came to a small decline which meant I lost sight of my friends, but it didn’t matter because I knew I could just speed up and catch them in a few minutes.”

I started to feel really weird, as if I was in a dream. My mouth started to feel odd, and I looked down at my arms in a panic

Then came thirty seconds of Ollie’s life that truly are the stuff of nightmares. He could never have imagined what was about to happen. “I started to feel really weird, as if I was in a dream. My mouth started to feel odd, and I looked down at my arms in a panic. My right arm looked normal, but I had two left arms. The second was in perfect sync with my real arm, it honestly looked like I had two. I saw another obstacle ahead of me, and I tried to move my right one to cling onto one of the holders on the obstacle, but it wouldn’t work. When I tried to move my left leg onto the holder, that wouldn’t work either. Then I lost all my balance entirely and collapsed.

Ollie Crossley
Ollie‘s family helped enormously with his recovery

“Luckily, I saw a man leaning against the same ambulance I had shouted to earlier. The paramedic saw me and asked if I was okay but I couldn’t say anything. I remember seeing Elliot (one of my friends who were behind me) and he asked the same thing but I couldn’t give him a response. Then the paramedic carried me into a jeep and drove me to the paramedic tent at the start of the run. I was only in there for about five minutes before the proper ambulance came. I managed to hobble to it with the doctor on my left shoulder and my Dad on my right.

“The first thing I did when I got to hospital was listen to Stormzy, because I knew I was going to see him at Boardmasters and it made me feel better. At this point, I could just about understand small bits of speech and read a few single words on a screen but trying to speak properly and put sentences together was a nightmare.”

His stay in hospital was relatively short. The stroke happened on the Saturday and he was only kept in until the Tuesday, when he was allowed to return home. But he says it was what followed that was the hardest part of the whole experience.

“I don’t know what was worse,” says Ollie. “Not being able to say exactly what I want to say, or not being able to do my GCSEs that I’d worked so hard for. I’ve always been an out-going person and very talkative, so losing both of those abilities had a huge impact on me at the beginning. Even though the support from everyone was unbelievable, it was more of a personal thing – I didn’t know how to get over it. Not doing my exams was a bit of a heartbreak as well; I was more worried about that than my actual stroke. Going from being an intelligent student to now not being able to put a whole sentence together really hurt me.”

My recovery was strangely fast and I just refused to stop until I achieved my personal goal of getting as close as I could to where I was before

Many people who suffer a stroke are faced with life-changing consequences. Some make a full recovery, but the impact is often completely debilitating, and sufferers must adapt to a new lifestyle without being given a choice. Ollie was one of the lucky ones, and attributes sport to being one of the major factors in his recovery.

“The progress I was making was quite crazy after I left hospital. My recovery was strangely fast and I just refused to stop until I achieved my personal goal of getting as close as I could to where I was before.

“Becoming a tennis coach to help my recovery was huge. Being able to do what I love was a massive bonus, and it absolutely increased my progress and helped me get back on my feet. My confidence levels soared more and more every day, and my boss has been so supportive throughout the whole thing. He didn’t think about my stroke when I first arrived, he just put me straight in at the deep end which was exactly what I needed.”

Today, Ollie is 17 and almost back to his original self. He now spends a lot if time focussing on raising money to fund the organisations that look after people like him so well.

“It is so, so important. I don’t know what kind of situation I’d be in without the support I have had from the doctors in my ward, the many speech therapists I have been so lucky to have had, and my neurophysiologist. I think everyone who has been affected by a stroke deserves the same treatment I’ve had, because it was beyond belief.”

Lauren McMillan, a resources coordinator for Different Strokes, a charity that provides young stroke survivors with help in the wake of a stroke, says that while strokes in young people are statistically rare, continuing support for these organisations is paramount.

Trying to navigate school, relationships, higher education and the world of work can be extremely difficult ordinarily, let alone with the added long-term effects of a stroke

“Strokes still affect 400 families in the UK each year, even though childhood strokes are not particularly common,” she says.

Ollie Crossley
Ollie’s sister Emma is running the London marathon for the Stroke Association

“It is often our experience that stroke survivors of Ollie’s age find that the support and services offered to them following the stroke are not geared towards their unique needs and aspirations. Trying to navigate school, relationships, higher education and the world of work can be extremely difficult ordinarily, let alone with the added long-term effects of a stroke. These effects include physical disabilities, communication and cognitive issues, and many survivors struggle with the invisible effects such as debilitating fatigue and depression. 

Rehabilitation is a massive part of stroke recovery, McMillan says.

“Every stroke is different but, the great news is that younger brains are developing and are more able to adapt and recover from a huge event like a stroke. With this in mind, it is vital for younger stroke survivors to receive support and rehabilitation throughout their recovery time. Our charity works to support younger stroke survivors through providing information, support and advice which is geared towards working age and the younger generation of survivors.”

Dealing with a stroke is a battle that every person could potentially face in their lifetime. Though data is limited, it is a fact that strokes are the fourth single leading cause of death in the UK; a startling statistic. In England, the NHS costs of a stroke are thought to be around £1.7 billion every year — it’s difficult to imagine what would happen if the funding stopped.

I’m just so grateful to be where I am now

For those in the same position as Ollie, either very young, in adolescence or older, stroke recovery cannot be done alone. Organisations like the National Stroke Association work tirelessly to assist the people whose lives have been turned upside down, most of the time through no fault of their own. It is thought that around half of strokes in young people are caused by a bleed on the brain, but for many the cause remains unknown.

“I’m just so grateful to be where I am now, the Stroke Association were incredible. My plan is to continue doing my A-levels, then aim to get into a good university to do something like Economics or Finance. My expectations are pretty high, but I don’t really see a reason why I shouldn’t change them at the moment!” 

Ollie’s sister, Emma Crossley, is running the London Marathon next Sunday, on behalf of the Stroke Association. Any donations can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/emma-c-crossley

13th April 2018