Ruth Haslam, now 28, has locked in syndrome, when someone is conscious and aware, but paralysed and unable to speak, and mostly communicates using eye gaze technology – an advanced eye-driven tablet communication system.
She had only been with her partner Tom Whittaker, 36, for five months when she collapsed in his arms one day.
She was in a coma for three weeks, had to relearn “absolutely everything” – including how to swallow saliva – and wasn’t able to lift her head off a pillow for about six months after the stroke in January 2014.
Ruth, of Leeds, West Yorkshire, spent more than a year in hospital – with supportive Tom becoming her rock – and has now told of her determination to defy the odds and walk again on her wedding day.
But she said she will not get married to Tom – who left his job as a hospital porter dispatcher to become her primary carer – until she can walk down the aisle.
She added: “I had to relearn absolutely everything after the stroke. I couldn’t even swallow saliva at first and it took me about six months just to be able to lift my head off the pillow.
“Tom keeps me laughing. He has saved my life in more ways than one.
“We take the mick out of each other, but that’s just our relationship. We did before the stroke, so why not now? I’m still the same person inside.”
Describing her life before the stroke, Ruth explained how she had worked since the age of 14 and had landed a new job as an assistant manager of a pub just days before it happened.
She added: “I worked hard, but liked a good night out too.”
In mid-2013, she had started dating Tom, who she had originally met years earlier but lost touch with, after being reintroduced to him by mutual friends.
As Christmas approached, she recalls being “randomly sick” a couple of times – the only warning signal of what was to come.
“I went very pale and was sick a couple of times, but I was working in two different pubs then at the busiest time of year, so I assumed I was just run down,” she said.
But her life changed in an instant, on January 2, 2014, when she was just 23.
That morning, she and Tom had been due to go shopping, but she decided to have a shower and a lie down before heading out after waking with what she thought was a migraine.
She recalled: “In the shower, I must have shouted for Tom, because I remember collapsing in his arms, then saying, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me’.
“He carried me to the bed and a few seconds later I was making a gurgling sound and drifting in and out of consciousness.
“I remember Tom ringing an ambulance, paramedics being in the room and putting an oxygen mask on me. But after that, I don’t remember anything.”
From there, Ruth was raced to Leeds General Infirmary, where doctors discovered that she had suffered a stroke – a serious medical condition where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, usually by a clot or a burst vessel.
In her case, the cause was a clot, so she was given emergency thrombectomy surgery, inserting a catheter into an artery via her groin, which then passed a tiny device up to the brain to remove the clot.
After spending three weeks in a coma, Ruth stayed in Leeds General Infirmary until March 2014, when she was transferred to Chapel Allerton Hospital, also in Leeds, for rehabilitation.
In the months that followed she had to relearn how to do absolutely everything – including swallowing saliva.
Touchingly, Tom made it clear that he was not going anywhere when he proposed to her by her hospital bedside in July 2014.
Speaking of her prognosis, Ruth said: “Every stroke and its estimated recovery time is different, so doctors couldn’t give me a set timeline, but they did tell me it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
“I believe doctors told Tom it was unlikely I’d ever be able to eat or drink again – but he made sure we proved them wrong.
“He would smuggle takeaways into a little room at the back of the ward for me and, after six months, I was eating and drinking again. Now, I can eat anything.”
Whilst in Chapel Allerton Hospital, Ruth had various different kinds of rehabilitation treatment – making progress in some areas.
Tragically, though, she has been left with locked in syndrome, which means she cannot move or speak.
However, she can still understand everything that is going on around her, which can be incredibly frustrating.
She explained: “Locked in syndrome is like being trapped inside your own body. I understand absolutely everything and I know more about what is going than people realise.
“For example, Tom can put something down in a room I haven’t been in and later on when he’s looking for it, I know where it is.
What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, causing a brain injury, disability or death as brain cells begin to die.
The life-threatening medical condition requires urgent treatment, as the sooner a person receives treatment, the less damage is likely to happen.
Treatment can include medication or even surgery. Survivors are often left with long-term problems caused by injury to their brain.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms can be remembered with the word ‘fast’, the NHS says.
- Face – the face may have dropped on one side or the person may not be able to smile
- Arms – the person may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there due to weakness or numbness
- Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or they may not be able to talk at all
- Time – dial 999 immediately if you notice any of these signs or symptoms
What are the causes?
The two main causes are ischaemic (the blood supply is stopped because of a blood clot) and haemorrhagic (a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts).
The NHS says 85 per cent of all cases are ischaemic.
A ‘mini-stroke’, known as a transient ischaemic attack, occurs when the blood supply to the brain is temporarily interrupted. It also requires immediate treatment.
How to prevent a stroke?
Conditions that can increase the risk of having a stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation and diabetes.
People can significantly reduce their risk by leading a healthy lifestyle.
The NHS suggests eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking.
“But people often either think I’m deaf, talk to me slowly or don’t even acknowledge that I’m there. They’ll ask Tom how I am, but he just tells them to ask me myself.
“I’ve even kicked people out of my house because they have been asking questions about me to other people. Nobody knows me and my body like me.”
Eventually, Ruth was discharged from hospital in February 2015 – 13 months after the stroke – having spent her birthday, Christmas and other celebrations on the ward.
Now, she continues to have physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, and has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise £9,500 for a special standing wheelchair.
She said: “Life now is good. During the weeks, it’s very therapy based, but I try not to let my wheelchair stop me.
“I go on holidays and to plenty of concerts, but it can be awful and unnerving to be sat down in a crowd of people. I want to be a part of it, to be able to get involved at gigs when they say, ‘Everybody on their feet’. I want to stand up and give Tom a hug and of course I want to walk at my wedding.
“But there are also health benefits to the chair I have set up the GoFundMe page for. It will allow me to stand, sit in a range of positions, improve my stamina and generally help me towards being more independent and achieving my therapy goals.”
By sharing her story, Ruth – whose emotions have been affected by the stroke, meaning she can cry very easily even when she is happy – wants to offer hope and support to others in her situation.
She said: “People call me an inspiration and I don’t really like it. I’m not – I’m just doing what others like me are doing.
“I take each day as it comes. It’s all I can do. Progress is slow, but I am heading in the right direction.
“I’d say to others to keep smiling because you can do it, even if it takes a long time. It helps to join support groups where you can ask questions and share tips to help each other.
“Throughout everything, Tom has been my rock. I don’t know where I would be without him.”
Click here to donate to the GoFundMe.
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