Co Armagh woman tells how teenage sister saved her life after stroke at Rhianna concert

Cait and Michele just before leaving for the Rhianna concert
Cait and Michele just before leaving for the Rhianna concert

In 2011 Michele McGarry from Lurgan had a massive stroke while attending a Rhianna concert in Belfast with her teenage sister and friends.

Michele, aged just 28 at the time, collapsed and presented with the classic FAST stroke symptoms – one sided weakness, slurred speech, drooped face and lack of co-ordination.

Michele (left) with fellow stroke survivor Stacey Hutton at the Young Women After Stroke group

Michele (left) with fellow stroke survivor Stacey Hutton at the Young Women After Stroke group

Shortly before collapsing Michele had dropped her drink and felt very weak in her left side. Her quick thinking sister and friends noticed her symptoms straight away and got help.

Michele described her experience: “Shortly before this I kept dropping my drink which I had been holding in my left hand. I thought I was just being clumsy even though this happened quite a few times.

“I had had less than two drinks so I knew I couldn’t be drunk. Luckily I received instant medical attention. My friends alerted security who brought me to the medical room where an ambulance was called straight away.

“They suspected immediately that I had had a stroke but no one could/would/wanted to believe it.”

Young Women After Stroke group pose for their charity calendar

Young Women After Stroke group pose for their charity calendar

She added: “I remember in the ambulance the girl kept asking me to squeeze her hand as hard as I could. As far as I knew I was squeezing her hand and I was frustrated that she kept asking me.

“I didn’t realise I had no power and I actually wasn’t squeezing her hand. I heard my sister, who was only 13 at the time, on the phone ringing people and crying. I tried to tell her it was OK. It was only when I tried to speak that I realised I wasn’t OK. I couldn’t say her name (Caitriona) properly and I couldn’t recognise my own voice - my speech was badly slurred.

“My face was also drooped, although I didn’t know this until much later.”

Michele was rushed from the concert to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she was immediately given a brain scan which uncovered a huge blood clot and doctors confirmed she was having a stroke. Michele received a clot busting treatment called thrombolysis.

She said: “Initially I had complete left side paralysis but the clot busting drug saved my mobility; had I not been diagnosed and treated so quickly I would not have been able to receive the drug which has to be administered within a few hours.

“I have nothing but high praise for the people who looked after me during this time”.

The long term effects of Michele’s stroke include problems with mobility, breathlessness, extreme fatigue, lack of coordination, concentration and memory problems.

Michele was told that the FAST actions of her sister, friends, and the medical professionals helped her saved her life. She says she feels lucky that she got medical attention so quickly.

Most other Friday nights she would have been driving home from Dublin and the outcome could have been so different.

Following her stroke, doctors discovered that Michele had atrial fibrillation (AF) – a type of irregular heartbeat that often goes undiagnosed. AF is a risk factor for stroke and was the cause of Michele’s stroke.

Since then, Michele has also been diagnosed with a genetic heart condition – restrictive cardiomyopathy. Michele’s AF is proving very difficult to control and unfortunately she has spent a lot of time in hospital recently.

Despite these health challenges, Michele passed her final Chartered Accountancy exams just one year after her stroke. She is a member of the Stroke Association’s Young Women After Stroke group and is keen to raise awareness that stroke affects younger people.

Michele said: “This group has offered me a lifeline and helped to give me a new purpose in life. I have met other young women (who I now regard as some of my closest friends) that have been through similar experiences to me.

“I look forward to our meetings, where we can share ideas, tips and questions. Since joining the group I have spoken at Stormont and appeared in a calendar! I would not even have had the confidence to do these things before my stroke, it is only with the support of the girls that I have been able to do so; this group empowers me and I feel blessed to be part of it.”

Brenda Maguire, Campaigns Manager at Stroke Association said: “Having a stroke is devastating. It can happen to anyone, of any age, at any time.

“Every second counts when you are having a stroke, so recognising the signs and calling 999 for an ambulance is crucial.

“A stroke is a medical emergency – as serious as a heart attack, so you need to seek immediate medical help. The quicker a person arrives at a specialist stroke unit, the quicker they will receive appropriate treatment to minimise the impact of their stroke.

“We want more people in Northern Ireland to learn the FAST test and share it with their friends and family to help others to save lives, and improve the chance of a better recovery for those who experience stroke.”

The FAST Test identifies the three most common symptoms of a stroke and the right action to take:

· FACE: Can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?

· ARM weakness: Can the person raise both arms?

· SPEECH problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?

· TIME to call 999

To find out more about the FAST campaign, and to view information and support available, visit www.stroke.org.uk/FAST