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My stroke hit like a thunderbolt from the blue

Internationally renowned theatre designer and two-time Tony Award nominee for his work on Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, Joe Vanek recalls how his stroke struck out of the blue one morning last year.

In his own words Joe Vanek said his stroke struck him “on the left side of the head like a thunderbolt out of the blue” one morning in the early summer of 2019 and thanks to his own F.A.S.T. actions he received the treatment he needed to make a good recovery.

Joe recalled how after sliding “unceremoniously” to the floor he instinctively knew that something was seriously wrong and that he needed help.

Writing about his experience for the Irish Heart Foundation in a wonderful essay entitled “Dispatches from the Dark Side of the Moon’ Joe wrote that on dialling 999 he then had to crawl on all fours to the front door to get help.

“While awaiting a response, my saviour materialised; a neighbour about to unlock his car parked directly in front of my house. Gasping and asking me what was the matter, he squatted down immediately to mind the shivering wreck that I’d become. During the few minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, I surfaced briefly to discover that my crouching minder was none other than the towering form of rugby player – Devin Toner,” Joe wrote.

Thanks to his swift actions of calling 999 immediately, 20 minutes later Joe was in the Emergency Department

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Thanks to his swift actions of calling 999 immediately, 20 minutes later Joe was in the Emergency Department in St James’s Hospital in Dublin. The ambulance crew had immediately recognised the signs of a stroke, his left side was affected and his speech was slurred.

He received treatment for his stroke in St James’s and was then transferred to the hospital’s Mercer’s Institute for Successful Aging (MISA) where he stayed for three months undergoing intensive therapy.

Joe was lucky his prompt action meant that his face, speech and memory were unaffected. However, he suffered an immediate loss of balance on his left side and problems with his balance which meant he was unable initially to walk unaided. He also suffered from double vision and a feeling of disconnectedness in his head.

As he said, “A fellow stroke survivor I have subsequently met at a support group has corroborated that the sensation in his head is of a radio station not properly tuned in, which makes complete sense to me.”

After months of intensive rehabilitation in the MISA building Joe returned home where he continued to work hard with physiotherapy sessions, regular exercise and yoga. He also joined the Irish Heart Foundation’s Stroke Support Group in Crumlin in Dublin where he was also introduced to the charity’s private Facebook support group called ‘Life After Stroke,’ which Joe said was an invaluable resource.

" Recognising a stroke and taking swift action is vitally important, due to the irreparable damage that can be done to the body during any delay, "

Joe Vanek

“It has proved invaluable in offering a forum for experiences to be related, questions asked and answers given. It provides much needed and vital support, for those feeling isolated, of which there are many.”

Joe said he was lucky as he has recovered as well as he has from his stroke and is once again enjoying daily walks around his neighbourhood in Dublin his home for the last 25 years.

Reflecting on what he has learned from his stroke experience Joe said that now his new watchwords were patience, time, exercise and rest and that these needed to be kept constantly in mind.

“Every stroke survivor must come to terms with the unpalatable fact that the brain and body is in massive shock and incapable of ‘bouncing back.’ any time soon. Both need all the help they can get.”

Echoing the F.A.S.T. message Joe said, “recognising a stroke and taking swift action is vitally important, due to the irreparable damage that can be done to the body during any delay.”

You can read more about Joe’s experience of stroke in his own words here.