On 7th January 2013, Meaghan O’Brien, age 22 from Boston had just started a gym class when she felt unwell, with pins and needles across her body and thought she was going to faint. Thinking she was unfit, Meaghan packed up her things to leave, and when walking through the corridor, feeling very dizzy, she collapsed. Staff ran to her aid and called the emergency services.
Meaghan recalls feeling a sensation on her face and having no power on the left side of her body, and she immediately recognised the F.A.S.T. signs and thought ‘I’m having a stroke’.
When the paramedics arrived, Meaghan was placed on a stretcher and was wheeled out of the gym and past her mum, who was waiting in line to begin a different gym class. She shouted at her mum to alert her and was then accompanied by her in the ambulance.
Meaghan told the paramedics she was having a stroke, but it was suggested that this wasn’t happening, due to her age and her high fitness level, she was ‘young and healthy looking’.
“The ambulance ride felt like an hour but it was only 10 minutes.”
After arriving at the hospital, Meaghan went through a range of tests and was told that she had likely suffered a complex migrane which can present as many of the same signs as a stroke. After some adverse reactions to medications, including arm spasms and not being able to sit still, the medical team told Meaghan about the treatment available to her and the risks. The administration of a clot-busting drug, thrombolysis, was explained to Meghan, which she was happy to proceed with.
“I felt like I was dying, so I was happy to take it. Thankfully the medicine returned the blood flow and oxygen to my brain to keep me alive but too much damage was already done and the left side of my body was paralysed."
The team sedated Meaghan and brought her by medical helicopter to another hospital in Boston. She woke the following day. “I was in ICU and surrounded by doctors and machines – it was so scary.”
“I couldn’t do anything – I couldn’t sit up, go to the toilet, move my head..”
After one week in hospital recovering, Meaghan’s family were told the devastating news the Meaghan would never walk again. Her brother had the difficult task of telling Meaghan.
After leaving ICU, Meaghan was brought to the cardiac unit where she began physical therapy and occupational therapy.
“I could barely take a step, I was held up by pillows when sitting down and I was falling asleep the entire time.”
Meghan then moved to a rehabilitation hospital in Boston, where she spent a month, and relearned how to walk and adapted to doing things with one hand. Family and friends supported Meaghan during this time, often travelling hours every day to hospital so she wouldn’t feel alone.
“When practicing to walk up and down the corridors, I was surrounded by people in their 70’s and 80’s. I asked myself, why am I here? It was such a shock to me.”
When accessing supports in the hospital, Meaghan felt that they had a ‘one size fits all approach’ which didn’t suit her. There was a very big age difference between Meaghan and the other patients. “In the group sessions I felt that my needs weren’t represented around the table and I was wasting precious recovery time doing something that wasn’t benefitting me. I instead focused on physical therapy to help me walk, and hand therapy.
With determination from Meaghan and lots of care from her Dad, travelling to hospital appointments and physical therapy, Meaghan regained the ability to walk again, defying the earlier predictions of her medical team and to her families delight.
Meaghan focused on herself and soon after, returned to work where she works in IT.
She continued accessing outpatient physical therapy in Boston until she ‘ran out of credits’ but didn’t stop pushing herself to progress.
Now, 10 years later, aged 32, Meghan is living in Dingle with her fiancé Gearoid and is getting married next year. She is independent, but still has some difficulties with her left leg and hand which she continues to work on.
Meaghan has now joined the Irish Heart Foundation’s Patient Champions Programme. Launched in March 2023, the programme connects heart and stroke patients across Ireland who can work together for changes needed in cardiac and stroke care, of which there are many. Each patient champion receives a range of ongoing peer and professional advocacy training. All to help champion patient issues at local and national level and share their personal views and experiences.
She said, “no patients should be told they can’t do something, they shouldn’t give up. Mindset is so important is recovery.” That is why she is happy to connect with other patients, share her story, and help others be seen around the table.
“It’s so important for yourself to reflect on your own story and experiences and be able to find some good in them – something positive can come from them, and others can be helped.
“I would have benefitted so much from the Patient Champions Programme if it was developed when I had my stroke. I was 22 and if I could listen to other people’s experiences, it would have given me so much encouragement. I’m here for those stroke patients now, to support them.”
After progressing through the Patient Champions Programme, Meghan has received training in lobbying at political level, speaking with the media, how to advocate, social media and others. She said ‘after sharing my story so many times, it’s so beneficial to me to get official training on how to use my experience to make a difference. When in America, I was often ‘wheeled out’ to tell my story, but now I feel I have the training to give impact. So much change needs to happen.”
Meaghan sees her Neurologist annually, and is hoping to access physical therapy soon. She goes to the gym every day to do strength training, and continues to progress from her stroke.
She is happy to represent the ‘young and healthy looking’ patients around the table. If you are a heart or stroke patient and would like to join the Patient Champions Programme, please contact Pauline at email@example.com