Family and Health: Dog walking back to health helped Skelmanthorpe woman set up new business

A major stroke left Elizabeth Johnson unable to speak or stand unaided and yet today she is a professional dog walker. Continuing our two-part look at strokes, this week’s Living meets a patient who was determined to recover

Elizabeth Johnson with her dogs Fynn (left), and Matti
Elizabeth Johnson with her dogs Fynn (left), and Matti

“When my friend came round and couldn’t get an answer she looked through the window and could see me lying on the floor,” said Elizabeth. “She called an ambulance and they had to break into the house to get to me.”

Elizabeth was taken to the Acute Stroke Unit in Calderdale’s Royal Hospital, where it was discovered she had suffered a blood clot in her brain. Around 80% of strokes are caused by clots, with the majority of the remainder caused by bleeding in the brain.

“But I had normal cholesterol levels and normal blood pressure. I still don’t know why I had the clot,” she said.

The stroke was so severe that Elizabeth, a former management trainer, was unable to walk or speak immediately afterwards. She explained: “My right side was affected. I was in a wheelchair for three-and-a-half months and walked with two sticks by the time I came home. Within a few days my speech came back, but I still forget the names for things.

“My physical recovery was much harder because my right arm was curled and I couldn’t even lift my fingers up. I still can’t fully raise my right arm. I was one of the youngest people in the stroke unit.”

High blood pressure is the major risk factor for strokes but other factors, such as an inactive lifestyle, obesity, heart disease, smoking, poor diet and diabetes also play a part. Elizabeth had none of these risks. She ate healthily, swam and cycled regularly and walked her two dogs on a daily basis.

According to Dr Pratap Rana, clinical lead for stroke services in Huddersfield and Calderdale, while most stroke patients are in their sixties or seventies and beyond, younger people still need to be vigilant. Every month one or two people in their mid thirties are admitted to the Acute Stroke Unit. And not all will be those in high risk groups.

“In some cases we look for risk factors and they are not obvious,” he said, “if we don’t find any underlying cause, it’s put down to a vascular abnormality.”

It’s not being over-dramatic to say that the stroke changed Elizabeth’s life. She explained: “I was working as a freelance management trainer and travelled all over the country and in one fell swoop it was all gone. My confidence took a knock, which is something you don’t realise will happen. I used to stand up in front of people teaching management techniques and the next day I couldn’t even walk. I lost my driving licence for two years.”

Fortunately, and there are many fortunate aspects of Elizabeth’s story, she had recently sold her home and was waiting to take up occupation of a much smaller cottage. She explained: “I sensed that the recession was coming and because I had a big mortgage I decided to downsize to be mortgage free. Three weeks after selling my house I had the stroke.”

After leaving the stroke unit Elizabeth underwent rehabilitation and physiotherapy and says she was “raring to go”. She added: “At my age my motivation to get better was high. But you have to work at it. Within three months I was back walking my dogs, they gave me an extra incentive to get better. I took up swimming again but can’t cycle any more, and I taught myself to write with my left hand — although I’m now teaching myself to write with my right hand again.”

Today, six years later, Elizabeth still walks with a slight limp and acknowledges that she will never fully recover.

Elizabeth Johnson with her spaniel Matti
Elizabeth Johnson with her spaniel Matti
 

She has been put on statin drugs to reduce the risk of cholesterol blocking her arteries, a therapy that is used in all patients who have had a stroke or mini-stroke, and takes low dose aspirin daily. But she feels that her life has turned around for the better.

After becoming mobile once more she found part-time teaching work but discovered that she couldn’t cope with the stress. And so a year ago she decided to launch a new career as a professional dog walker. She calls her small business Puppydogs. It is an occupation that she not only enjoys but keeps her fit and has aided her recovery. She also has a Saturday job working as an estate agent’s viewing assistant.

“I’m an outdoors person,” says Elizabeth, “so it suits me. I have three or four regular customers and walk my own dogs, Matti and Fynn, every day. I got Job Seekers’ Allowance while I was off work because I wasn’t entitled to any disability benefits. But it was such a culture shock going to the Job Centre because I’ve never been on any kind of benefits before. Some weeks I only earn about £70 from dog walking, but I’d rather do this than go to the Job Centre.”

Working part-time allows Elizabeth to volunteer at the Kirkwood Hospice and help the Stroke Association. She knows that strokes can have a devastating, permanent effect and is thankful to be alive and well. “I have lots to be grateful for,” she added.

To find out more about Puppydogs call Elizabeth on 01484 862440.

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