Warren gets back to work after stroke

51-year-old community bank manager Warren is used to turning heads, his younger self no doubt attracting attention as he drove about in a metallic green HZ Kingswood station-wagon as a 19-year old. But on the first day of the year in 2016, Warren found himself the centre of attention for an unenviable reason.

“It was 7am on New Year’s Day. I was at home and just about to get changed to go to the gym when I collapsed. I know there was quite a loud bang when I hit the wall – enough for my son to come looking. He was the first one to find me,” said Warren.

Rushed to the Royal North Shore Hospital by ambulance, Warren says he doesn’t remember the next few days as the medical team cared for him and ran tests.

“I don’t remember the first three days of that year – I’ve lost all memory. At some point, I was told I’d had a stroke. I remember thinking I was fortunate I’d been at home. I also couldn’t stop thinking about going back to work – it was weird really,” Warren said.

There are things Warren does recall about his first week though: being completely paralysed on his right side, being unable to talk and being fed through a nasal tube because he couldn’t swallow. After 10 days in the stroke unit, Warren had regained some movement and feeling which meant that when he started rehab, he was walking unaided.

After four weeks, Warren was referred to Royal Rehab for a home-based rehab program which was geared around improving the significant weakness he still experienced on his right side returning to reading and activities to help improve his hand-eye coordination.

“I was a falls risk because of weakness and losing peripheral vision in my right eye. The rehab team had me doing a full training circuit including squats, walking on a treadmill, then fast walking around a circuit at home. They also gave me puzzles with big pieces which I’d have to put together,” Warren said.

But it was learning to read again that he describes as daunting and “extremely frustrating.”

“The stroke affected my right eye and I lost the ability to read. I remember one of my bosses giving me a Kindle while I was in hospital. When I first opened it, I knew I was looking at words but couldn’t work them out,” Warren said. “When I eventually started reading again, it was slow. I’d look at text messages and could only read about 7 words a minute. I’d make multiple errors.”

Warren also accessed adaptive sport, recreation and leisure services provided by Royal Rehab. Warren shared that this was his favourite part of rehab: riding a recumbent bike around a two-kilometre track on Friday afternoons.

“Every Friday, a driver would pick me up and take me to the cycling hub at St Ives. I’d ride for two or three hours – I absolutely loved it. It had a twofold benefit for me. Obviously physical but also the social interaction. I was stuck at home all day every day four days a week – so it was a half day out. It was something to look forward to.”

He’s grateful to the “incredible people” at Royal Rebab who he says encouraged him to reach milestones and who pushed him to continue improving.

“My interaction with the recreational therapist, Adam, was fantastic. We’d cycle around the track together and talk about anything and everything. We both liked cars and we’d solve the world’s problems. He was a great source of friendship and comfort. He was one of a few people I would interact with socially, so it was fantastic going through that with him.”

Having initially being told he was lucky to survive and that he would never be back at work, Warren’s determination to be back at his desk never faltered. Thirteen months after his stroke, he began to progressively return to work, going full time 12 months later.

It’s been four years since Warren’s stroke. He works full days at the bank and uses adaptive technology such as speech to text apps to make work easier as well as mind-training games to rewire his brain. He still does exercises at home before heading off for the day and goes to a few gym sessions every week. Involvement in his church and contributions to local community groups help keep him grounded.

When he gets frustrated about things he can’t do or do as well now, he draws on his training and interest in leadership development over the years to remind himself of how far he’s come.

“I’m reading between 70 and 110 words a minute now. It’s still not normal reading speed, but I’ve progressed a long way,” he said.

“The reality is, I’ve got a pretty good life. I’m not 100 per cent but when I compare myself to some less fortunate people, I realise how lucky I am.”

He even reached the stage of being so well recovered that he was asked if he’d like to volunteer to help others with their rehabilitation, an experience Warren says he loved.

As for the future, Warren hopes to drive again.

Warren’s advice to others

There was never a doubt in Warren’s mind that he’d return to work, even when experts told him otherwise. He’s fully convinced that his determination to work hard from day one got him where he is today.

“You need to understand that the journey could take a long time, so be prepared to put the hard yards in for the long term. As soon as I could, I was doing 8 hours of rehab a day because I likened it to ‘work’ – I wanted to do everything I could to get back. I know from experience that the harder you work initially, the more benefits you’ll reap in the long run.”

Warren also believes that not being too hard on yourself about the things you can’t do is important.

“I still have to remind myself that the last thing I should do is to beat myself up. Even if you only see a miniscule improvement, at least it’s an improvement. Hold on to the small wins – they’ll give you incredible comfort and strength when going through those tough times.”