One in six people has a stroke in their lifetime. That means that, in this
House of 150 representatives alone, 25 of us could suffer a stroke. It does not discriminate between men and women or young and old. Some strokes are fatal while others cause temporary or permanent disability.
From 14 to 21 September is stroke awareness week. On Friday, I held an afternoon tea at my office. I met some inspiring stroke survivors, together with the allied health professionals who deliver fantastic services in my region.
Twelve months ago, 42-year-old Gretel Burgess was seven weeks off finishing her master's degree in social work. She was camping with her husband and children in the Daintree rainforest when suddenly it felt like someone had grabbed a shovel and whacked her on the back of the head.
She lost her vision. She could not move. She was screaming with pain and suffered severe vertigo to a point where she was vomiting every time she was moved. She said:
'I felt like I was in a black helmet of darkness and the words were floating around, but I couldn't grab them. I couldn't tell my husband what was wrong.'
She was rushed to the Cairns Hospital, where she was told she had had a stroke and, soon after, experienced another one. Doctors found that a leaky heart valve had allowed a blood clot to travel to her brain. She suffered lost vision, poor balance, fatigue, confusion, reduced independence and anxiety.
But, one year on, Gretel has come an incredibly long way. She was able to access the brilliant STEPS, or Skills To Enable People and Communities, program at the Cairns North Community Health Facility. Gretel describes it as 'a lifesaver'. She has now used her experience to her advantage, training to run the STEPS program as a peer facilitator. She has also, by the way, finished her studies, and she graduated last month. 'I've turned lemons into lemonade,' she said.
Around 440,000 stroke survivors are estimated to live in the community, and around one-third of the survivors are of working age.
Roy Thorpe wrote to me earlier this year and told me that, at the age of 62, he had two heart failures and a serious stroke, leaving his right side not quite working like it used to. Roy outlined his struggle to recover while supporting his wife and two sons, aged nine and 12 at the time, on a disability pension.
While he was in the rehabilitation ward in the Cairns Hospital, he did not feel like he should be in the same ward as —as he viewed it—'the old people'. He felt that his biggest disability was that he looked normal, a sentiment that was echoed also by Gretel.
After sitting at the kitchen table for six years, Roy was experiencing depression and decided to try and get back to work. A qualified civil structural engineer, he got a job with the Cairns city council at the age of 69, and he has now worked there for the past eight years. He has also seen his two sons graduate from university. Roy's story shows what can be achieved with a bit of support from government and, more importantly, the right attitude.
I also met Kerry Stingel, from Cairns Occupational Therapy, who is the President of the Far North Queensland Allied Health Association. Kerry says that, with the right rehabilitation, people can keep improving significantly after a stroke. But, without access to ongoing occupational therapy, speech and language pathology and physiotherapy, they can be more dependent than they need to be in the long term.
Kerry's mum was an active, outgoing 69-year-old when she had a major stroke a year ago after heart surgery, resulting in ongoing problems with movement and speech.
Kerry told me about the difficulties in getting ongoing rehabilitation for people once they leave the hospital and are in their home or in an aged-care facility. She asks, 'Where is the funding for slow-stream rehabilitation?' She says the enhanced primary care rebate also needs to be increased. It has not changed for many years and only covers five sessions in total, for all allied health, in a calendar year.
I think this is something that we really need to consider. It is one of those very important issues that we need to consider when we are formulating future health policy, because it does take a lot, particularly when they are going out into aged-care facilities, to support people with these types of conditions. Just the time going there and back eats into those concessions that they have available.
In conclusion, in this National Stroke Week, my message is: be aware, live healthily and for goodness sake, above all else, get yourself checked very, very regularly.