After Stroke: A couple's courageous post stroke journey
When Kerrie-Anne Teo and Nathan Nguyen met at friend’s party in 2009, little did they know that together they will build a life based on shared values, compassion, sacrifices and unconditional love. Given the similar interests - a passion for travel, a love of cats, and a penchant for fast cars - the duo was destined to fall in love. In 2015, Kerrie-Anne and Nathan made their love official by eloping and getting married in Paris. In each other, they found a soulmate and love that was all encompassing. Therefore in 2017 when Nathan had a stroke that left him partially immobile, Kerrie quit everything to unhesitating become his carer.
“May 2017 - I will never forget the date," says Kerrie as she settles down to talk about the incident that irreversibly changed Nathan and her lives forever. "Nathan - a Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) engineer - was at work, assisting with the lifting of a 64 kg aircraft camera when it slipped and hit him on the right side of his head and neck. At the time, he did not display any symptoms, and no one was aware of the enormity of the accident," she says.
He was taken to a local hospital as a precautionary measure, where he presented with slurred speech and left-sided weakness, in particular, facial droop. “It wasn’t until we were back home that we realised something was amiss. At night, he suddenly woke me up with his movements and noises and I realised he’d lost movement on his left side. A fainting episode followed, and when he regained consciousness, he was completely oblivious to everything that had occurred and believed that he was quite alright," remembers Kerrie.
Perturbed by Nathan’s actions, Kerrie immediately called for an ambulance and took him to the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH). There, a CT scan revealed that Nathan had suffered a severe stroke due to a blood clot from the neck trauma. “He was left side hemiplegic - a condition that affects one side of the body, and underwent craniectomy to remove a large portion of his right side skull to relieve pressure on his swelling brain,” says Kerrie.
Nathan was in the ICU for a few days before being admitted to the stroke ward and was then moved as an inpatient to Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit (BIRU) at Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre. “As of November, he has been an outpatient at Brain Injury Rehabilitation Community and Home (BIRCH). Nathan has also undergone multiple surgeries since the stroke, as a result of a failed cranioplasty due to infection. He underwent a second cranioplasty earlier this year,” adds Kerrie.
Being a carer
That fateful cold May morning forced Kerrie to give up her role as a volunteer at an animal shelter and take up one of the toughest jobs ever, being a carer.
"Nothing prepares you for the sudden onset of a disease or a condition. It just happens, and you have to cope the best way you can. As a carer, I have thrown myself headfirst into this role. When Nathan was an inpatient at the hospital and rehabilitation centre, he was receiving care from nurses and doctors. I was with him for up to 12 hours a day at times. There, I learnt to take care of him, and followed the prescribed precautions that ensured his speedy return home,” she says.
“Roles and responsibilities in our relationship have changed drastically since the incident. Now, I maintain the house and manage issues relating to our car, finance, Nathan’s work and claims, and even our cat,” she says.
Kerrie says that she derives her strength from Nathan’s resilience and courage. “Nathan has been my greatest source of strength. He never complained, even when they were taking the stitches out of his head without anesthesia, or when he had to undergo multiple surgeries. My frustrations and challenges pale in comparison to his,” she says, a discernible catch in her voice.
The Sydney born adds, "I have realised that there aren't any set rules for becoming a carer. You don't have to be of a certain age or gender or have any education or previous experience. What you need is absolute love for the other person. You will be tested - emotionally and physically, and only through love, you will find the strength to succeed."
Kerrie is also incredibly grateful for the support the couple received from their families and friends. "As soon as our parents found out about the severity of the injury, they flew over to help us. Our friends have visited us from all over Australia and have gone out of their way to provide the necessary support that has helped me take care of Nathan without worrying about other issues. Our cat Neko is also a source of great comfort and brings in a sense of normality at home," says Kerrie.
Since the incident, the couple has incorporated numerous changes to their lifestyle that have helped hasten Nathan's recovery. "At first, Nathan was only able to commute with the help of a wheelchair. With perseverance and dedication to an intense rehabilitation program, he is now able to walk again with a single point stick. Things aren't the same as they were before, but he's still at rehab, and there’s hope for continued recovery,” says Kerrie.
Nathan dedicates most of his time either attending rehabilitation or undergoing a home exercise program. “His therapy includes physiotherapy, speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychology. Since his recent surgery, and a marked improvement in his walking, we have started taking small walks around the community. He tries to take the stairs, use travelators and escalators independently,” says the Mawson Lakes resident.
After Nathan’s diagnosis Kerrie started a website called After Stroke to chronicle the couple's journey post stroke. “Before Nathan’s injury, we were not aware of stroke, its symptoms and aftermaths, and we didn't think it would happen to someone so young!" she says.
“We felt there was a need to speak about the condition from a personal point of view and that’s why we created the website and an Instagram page. We hope to raise awareness about how stroke can affect young adults and its impact on the survivor's families and primary carers. We use a lot of personal photos detailing Nathan’s injuries, subsequent treatments, and his recovery to drive the message home. Through the blog, we have been fortunate to connect with other stroke survivors and their partners from around the world. They fill us with so much hope and inspiration,” she adds.
Kerrie wants people to be more informed about stroke and be able to identify the symptoms when they first appear in a person. “The Stroke Foundation recommends the F.A.S.T. test - Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties, Time to call 000 - to identify and recognise symptoms of stroke. Being informed will help you assist a loved one if the need arises without wasting precious time," she says.
Kerrie has a piece of advice for all the new carers out there. "You will be the nurse, cook, cleaner, driver, psychologist, physiotherapist, personal assistant and hairdresser all in one! To be a good carer, I have learnt, one needs to be able to adapt to the situation, learn from the past and find a balance between the job and caring for yourself. Remember to take the time out to look after yourself as well, or you will risk burnout. I am still learning, and I have found that talking and connecting with others in similar situations have been helpful," she says.
"I love him so much! And, that love drives me to get the best care possible for Nathan," Kerrie adds after a pause. "I knew I couldn’t give in to desperation, but learn to be strong and adapt to the situation. I want to be his rock!" says the 28-year-old.
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