Anna Higgs at her home in Harlow.
Anna Higgs had been looking forward to a nice Christmas. She celebrated Christmas Day 2004 with her whole family in her father’s house in Harlow, north of London. Anna’s new-born son Henry, then just one month old, was also with them. But suddenly Anna didn’t feel well and had difficulty speaking and also walking. Her family took her home and put her to bed. It was only the following morning that Anna’s sister noticed that something was seriously wrong and called an emergency doctor. His devastating diagnosis: stroke, at the age of just 24.
The local hospital in Harlow only had a skeleton staff over Christmas. This meant that it was not possible to perform a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan there. Anna was therefore transferred to another hospital further away for emergency treatment and initial tests. Even though her husband Craig, her parents and other relatives visited her every day, Anna became increasingly desperate. She could no longer move her right arm or her right leg, and no longer had any sight in her right eye. “I was really worried,” says Anna. “The more I understood what had happened to me, the greater my fear. It looked as though my entire life hitherto was over.” She would have liked to have looked after her young son, but that was not possible. Anna’s husband Craig had no choice but to give up his job in order to stay at home.
Once the young mother had been transferred to her local hospital in Harlow two weeks later, she received physiotherapy every day. She initially concentrated on her right leg, since she wanted to learn to walk again as quickly as possible. But progress was slow and Anna repeatedly suffered bitter setbacks, such as contracting a hospital infection which weakened her further. “At some point, one of the nurses told me that I’d probably need an electric wheelchair when I left hospital,” Anna remembers. “That totally knocked me over.”
She spent six months in hospital. Afterwards, she could not go back to her old flat, as it was on the third floor. The local authority found her a flat on the ground floor. This was the start of a particularly difficult period for Anna. She had to learn to cope with everyday life, despite her paralysis. “That was extremely difficult with a small child,” she says. “I had to use only my left hand for everything, including changing Henry’s nappies.” Although her family did all that they could to support her, Anna felt that she was on her own. In hospital, other people had looked after everything for her and there were clear times for treatments and physiotherapy. “But almost immediately after I left hospital, communication broke down completely.” From one moment to the next, Anna had to cope with everything on her own.
Strokes are on the rise around the globe. Over the past 20 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of patients. In 2013 alone, 10.3 million people worldwide were affected. Many patients lack access to a specialised hospital and therefore do not receive optimum treatment and care. Experts estimate that roughly every 30 minutes a stroke patient who could have been saved in a specialised hospital either dies or suffers serious complications.
Boehringer Ingelheim is helping to change this situation.
The company’s “Angels Initiative” works with leading organisations and experts to improve access to specialist stroke hospitals around the world. The initiative aims to build a community of at least 1,500 new stroke centres and specialised hospitals by 2019 in Europe alone. To this end, the initiative is training nurses and carers as stroke specialists, offers simulation-based training and equips hospitals with stroke boxes. This is in keeping with the motto of the Angels Initiative: “Giving life a chance”.
A complete mental breakdown followed. For two years, the young woman no longer left the house. “I had given up all hope,” she says. “And I was seriously worried that I’d have another stroke.” That was precisely what happened, but the second stroke was less severe than the first one.
The turning point came when Anna decided to take an antidepressant. Things slowly improved after this, and her deep despair faded into the background. Anna found the strength to fight. With iron discipline, she worked to regain control of her right leg. “My son helped me,” she says. “I wanted to be able to treat him like any other mother treated her child. That was what motivated me.” She won the struggle for control of her leg and today Anna can walk normally again. By contrast, the physiotherapy for her right arm was disappointing and she can hardly move it to this day. “At some point, I gave up because I had used up all my strength,” the 36-year-old says. A few years ago, she had all of her right arm tattooed. “That way it at least looks nice, even if I can’t use it,” she jokes. Anna fought her way back to life. Despite her physical limitations, she took up dancing a few years ago. She now organises an annual dance and cabaret show in aid of a selfhelp group for stroke victims.
Anna Higgs at her home in Harlow.
She won the struggle for control of her leg and today Anna can walk normally again.
The support of her family and, above all, her relationship with her husband Craig have helped Anna to escape from the deep hole which she had fallen into after her stroke. However, her way back to a contented and independent life would have been much easier for her if she had been able to rely more on professional partners. “When you leave hospital after a serious stroke, you urgently need a safety net to fall into,” she says. There is a need for doctors, carers and therapists who talk to one another, discuss things and follow a joint plan. As Anna knows all too well from her own experience, patients are hardly capable of dealing with things themselves in such situations.
Looking back, Anna actually thinks that she was lucky compared to others, despite her bad experience. “Because I was so young, I definitely got more help and attention than older patients.” That was true not only of doctors and therapists, but also of her friends. Only recently, friends raised £2,000 to buy Anna a device which helps to strengthen the muscles in her right leg using electrical impulses.
Still, Anna knows that the fact that she has now regained a life she can enjoy is to a great extent due to herself. “Despite my difficult situation, I was able to get a lot done myself and organise things. This is because, fortunately, I’m a very open and direct person.”
Stroke is a complex medical issue, but there are ways to significantly reduce its impact. Recognizing the signs of stroke early, treating it as a medical emergency with admission to a specialised stroke unit, and access to the best professional care can substantially improve outcomes.