Blog: Other people have strokes, not me

Justin Smallwood is from Lympstone and works with East Devon and Exeter Stroke Rehab. Here he shares his experiences of having a stroke.

I was in my forties, a fit and active Royal Marines Commando. I didn’t need to train to run a decent half-marathon, I rowed hard at weekends and trained in the gym during the week, using a heart rate monitor to keep track of how hard I was training. Then one day I noticed that my heart rate was far higher than the exercise effort warranted and I also began to have episodes when my heart started pounding away for no particular reason: palpitations.

So, off to the GP who, suspecting atrial fibrillation (AF), referred me to a cardiologist who confirmed I had paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. He suggested warfarin and beta blockers which I declined because other people have strokes, not me. AF and palpitations didn’t really sound that dangerous.

Wrong. One morning a few months later, coming down the stairs at home, I felt a not entirely unpleasant feeling of light-headedness as I slid to the ground and lost consciousness. Sometime later, I came round and tried to carry on with my day. I was confused, uncoordinated and unable to grasp what might have happened until a friend rang and asked me why my speech was slurred. He took me to the GP who asked me to raise both arms above my head and say ‘hippopotamus’. I failed both tests and he concluded I’d had a stroke. So it was off to the stroke unit at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to have a good think about why I hadn’t taken the cardiologist’s advice.

It may be that endurance athletes are more prone to AF. It may be that people who drink even a little bit over the recommended number of units of alcohol get AF. It may just be bad luck to have AF. If you suspect something’s not quite right with your heart rhythm then talk to your GP. If they can quickly confirm a heartbeat irregularity using one of the new mobile AF detection devices or an ECG machine, then more people will receive the right treatment and fewer people will have strokes.

I was lucky and after my stroke I was left with only mild residual weakness in my left side and some slurred speech, both of which I overcame. I also suffered emotionalism – tearfulness – not good fun for anyone, especially if you are a Royal Marine Commando!

Since retiring from the Royal Marines, my work has been to help other people with their stroke rehab. I have trained as an Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury – www.arni.co.uk – stroke rehab trainer. I also make it my business to encourage people to check their own pulse rate and rhythm regularly and to get an irregular heartbeat looked at. If that can be done at the GP surgery, so much the better. The link between AF and stroke is very real. If you think you have AF, don’t be complacent, don’t be scared, but do go and talk to your GP – now.

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