Life On a Plateau – Life after stroke and Covid anxieties

By Joe Vanek Stroke News   |   22nd Mar 2021

Stroke survivor and member of the Irish Heart Foundation’s Crumlin Stroke Support Group Joe Vanek, reflects on life after stroke in the middle of a pandemic.


“Never forget the past, but don’t dwell on it.”

According to my mother, these were my English grandmother’s oft repeated words of wisdom. Easier said than done, post-stroke and during the current Covid 19 pandemic.

My mind (thankfully operating on most available cylinders), constantly retreats from the destabilising present to recall times past – long gone family members, friends and colleagues –  as well as key memories of a sorely missed, previous existence.

" Lying on the bed, I felt plateaued – literally as well as metaphorically."

Joe Vanek

This Year? Next Year? Sometime? Soon?

Throughout the decades of my life – that amazingly, total just over seven – I have rarely made new-year resolutions. The years have generally blended one into another; leap-frogging that most significant date in the calendar through the welcome momentum of constant and demanding work.

Following my return home in late August of 2019, after a three month residency in the MISA Building at St James’s Hospital after my stroke, a sofa-bed was made up in the  all-white living room of my house; it offered a safe haven /welcome respite from the challenges of post-stroke after-shocks and Covid induced anxieties.

In the pre-Covid days, after a neighbourhood walk, shopping expedition, exercise or yoga class, I would make a bee line for it, lower myself gratefully onto the bed’s ochre counterpane, gaze up at the ceiling and mentally drift. As 2019 morphed into 2020, this became a daily habit each morning and afternoon, of maybe twenty or thirty minutes, during which time, with Covid infections surging, all activity options dried up.

Inevitably, as the weeks of stasis gave way to months, a profound state of ennui enveloped me; lying on the bed, I felt plateaued – literally as well as metaphorically.

Then with 2020 struggling towards its dismal finishing line, and festive spirits low, word came of breakthroughs in Covid vaccination research; the media was awash with new and brash, futuristic words – AstraZeneca – Moderna – Pfizer BioNTech.

Was a panacea, (by whichever name?), glimmering on the plateau’s horizon? Would 2021 be a watershed moment? If proved correct – and in anticipation of a return to some forms of normality –  maybe it was time to welcome this particular new-year, and for once, make a resolution?

It also seemed an apposite moment, to face the fact that what I had achieved, in relation to stroke recovery (twenty months after the event), was where I might remain, and that believing myself to be on an incremental trajectory of improvements, could be a false assumption.

Thinking back to the consultant neurologist’s visit in the early autumn, and the scan showing a benign, fluffy cloud obscuring a section of my brain, I asked if this would dissipate in time, and with it the symptoms of dislocation from the world around me that I have experienced since day one ?  The response alas, was understandably ambiguous, implying that only patience and time would tell.

My new-year resolution therefore, was to consign my comforting plateau of a bed to history, reinstate the sofa, and open up valuable floor space in the living room for exercise and eventually (when circumstances allowed ) supervised yoga. This at least would signify my personal return to some kind of normality. It was time to work within my current capabilities, be grateful for what I had achieved so far, and in as many ways as possible, reconnect with an increasingly Zoom dominated world.

" For virtually a whole year, spanning the Spring Lockdown of 2020, to the current level 5 restrictions of 2021, I have had almost sole custody of my body."

Joe Vanek

The Company I Keep

For virtually a whole year, spanning the Spring Lockdown of 2020, to the current level 5 restrictions of 2021, I have had almost sole custody of my body.

Occasionally, doctors, dentists, chiropodists and practice nurses, have been given a temporary loan of it for an hour or so, but generally, being responsible for its smooth running, and monitoring its daily wear and tear, was, I discovered, more akin to minding an imaginary friend.

This friend, kindly drew my attention to the onset of tinnitus; with its tender, celestial vibrations, as if from distant wind chimes. Initially, I assumed this sensation in my ears came from exposure to an exuberant orchestra during a night at the opera, and felt confident it would disappear in time. But no, it was here to stay, and as the months rolled by, with its – now you hear it, now you don’t – teasing, I sensed this was something else I must learn to live with, alongside major stroke side effects.

One of the most unwelcome of these, is heightened anxiety, not helped in my case, by a GP’s gentle reminder that however small, every medical procedure, carried some degree of risk.

Hence, having my ears syringed, filled me with dread, for fear of what it could trigger, and a visit to the dentist, for the extraction of a wisdom tooth, was particularly harrowing. Advised to remain on anti-coagulation medication, in response to my nervous questioning, the dental surgeon drily observed that surely bleeding was a better alternative to suffering a second stroke?

I was informed that any type of sedation needed to be approached with caution, and that in my case, a local anaesthetic and nothing else, was preferable.

A few days later, while seated calmly in the chiropodist’s chair, I was startled by the blithely reassuring comment, that yes, I was definitely suffering from chilblains, and not Covid toe.

" My 3D ladder, seemed an apt visual metaphor, for lives truncated by both a stroke and Covid."

Joe Vanek

A Tale of Three Ladders 

The Irish Heart Foundation runs a private Facebook group called: Life After Stroke, which is a valuable forum for survivors. Recently, I was greatly taken by a cartoon depicting two ladders. On one, the rungs were close together and at the top, a small figure was vanishing into the clouds. The second ladder had widely spaced rungs, and at ground level, a solitary figure with arms outstretched, was struggling to grasp the first rung. These two images spoke volumes; especially as in my all white living room, I have a red bamboo ladder that doesn’t even reach the cornice. My 3D ladder, seemed an apt visual metaphor, for lives truncated by both a stroke and Covid.

The vaccines will of course have a huge impact on societies worldwide, as stalled lives and livelihoods are reawakened, but for some stroke survivors, many elements of the hoped for ‘ return to normality,’ will continue to lie beyond their grasp.

Those cartoon ladders also got me thinking about striving to do one’s best; taking it in small, easy stages (or rungs) and setting simple achievable goals on the pathway to recovery. But, striving to do one’s best of necessity often entails pushing the boundaries, in the hope of maybe achieving a ‘ personal best.’ On Valentine’s Day this year, the Irish Heart Foundation was instrumental in offering myself and many other stroke survivors the opportunity to do just that.

" A year ago, on Valentine’s Day, one of my closest friends and colleagues Monica Frawley died. She was one of Ireland’s leading stage designers, and in many ways the sister in Life and Art I never had,"

Joe Vanek

The Love Run for Monica

A year ago, on Valentine’s Day, one of my closest friends and colleagues Monica Frawley died. She was one of Ireland’s leading stage designers, and in many ways the sister in Life and Art I never had.

While she was coping with a particularly virulent form of pancreatic cancer, I was coming to terms with my own life after stroke. Her support, and fervent belief that ‘ I would make it,’ was the driving force behind my decision to participate in the Love Run (Or in my case – Love Walk).

What made the two-hour round trip of 5.3km so poignant, was Monica’s absence from those friends wishing me well; the walk was dedicated to her memory.

Joe Vanek – March 2021

Joe Vanek is a well renowned English designer for theatre, opera, ballet and contemporary dance both internationally and in Ireland. 

He was Director of Design for the Abbey Theatre from 1994 – 97, and Design Associate for the Wexford Festival Opera from 2006 – 2008.

Joe is principally know for his designs for Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel, which received 2 Tony Award design nominations for the production in New York on Broadway. 

He is also a member of the Irish Heart Foundation’s Stroke Support Group in Crumlin in Dublin.


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coronavirus Covid-19 COVID-19 vaccination Joe Vanek Life after Stroke Love Run stroke stroke recovery stroke rehabilitation

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