Veteran walker Ken Hodgson from Holmfirth was fit enough in his early 60s to make a 490-mile pilgrimage across Northern Spain. Just three years later he became the victim of a catastrophic stroke.
On May 10 last year, the former Salford University lecturer and environmental health officer suffered an ischaemic stroke. Within the space of a few minutes his life changed dramatically.
Today Ken, now 66, struggles to walk around his own home, let alone set out on the sort of long-distance walks that were once his “main hobby”.
But he is slowly regaining the use of his left leg and left arm and is no longer totally wheelchair bound. There is hope. Unfortunately, like many stroke survivors, Ken has discovered that progress can be slow.
Before his stroke, Ken was the sort of person who could tackle anything. In fact, in the days leading up to the ischaemic stroke – usually caused by a blockage in a blood vessel leading to the brain - he was preparing for another major challenge, an epic 600-mile solo pilgrimage across the Pyrenees.
“I’d just got a plane ticket to fly to the South of France,” said Ken, “and things could have been worse. If the stroke had happened just a bit later then I could have been on the top of the Pyrenees on my own and I wouldn’t be here now.”
Ken’s wife Liz says that while her husband admits to frustration over not being able to walk as he once did, he remains upbeat and cheerful.
“He’s remarkably positive,” said Liz, “and amazing”.
His religious beliefs, she believes, have helped him. Ken is a Quaker and as such made Examiner headlines back in 2014 when he travelled to Palestine as a human rights observer for a World Council of Churches project. He explained: “I spent three months there as an ecumenical accompanier in the Nablus area of the West Bank. We were providing a protective presence for the Palestinian farmers from the Israeli occupiers. The fact we were there stopped the farmers being attacked.”
While the stroke took Ken totally by surprise there had been warning signs that all was not well. The month before he’d been on a cycling holiday in Orkney and began to suffer from chest pains, which he put down to an infection. He ended up being airlifted to hospital in Aberdeen where he was told he’d had a heart attack and fitted with a stent (a mesh tube that is placed into an artery that has become blocked or weakened).
Despite his active lifestyle, Ken knew his blood pressure was starting to climb. “We have a home monitor and it was showing an average blood pressure of 155 over 99 (120/80 is considered normal), so I’d made an appointment with my doctor for after our holiday to talk about it,” he said.
Following the stroke Ken spent four months in Calderdale Royal and the couple, who have three children, had their house adapted to help with his disabilities. He has regular physiotherapy sessions and the man who once completed a 212-mile coast to coast walk across this country has set himself the target of being able to climb the stairs at home.
Both Ken and Liz attend the monthly meetings of the Holme Valley Stroke Group (in Holmfirth Methodist Church) and say it has been enormously helpful to get to know other stroke survivors. Ruth Thomas, an occupational therapist and stroke specialist who helped to establish the group, says: “The members enjoy talking to other people because they know exactly how they feel and can share information and experiences.”
For Leeds University academic Susan Daniels, 65, this is precisely what membership of the group has given her. She said: “I don’t have to explain anything to anybody here because they know what you have been through. And you see people at different stages of recovery and it encourages you. I was in a wheelchair and now I have enough balance skills to walk with a stick.”
Susan, from Denby Dale, suffered an ischaemic stroke last August, a catastrophic event that, in her own words “changed me from being someone who was a very active, outside person to being paralysed down the left hand side. In hospital I was a hoist patient.”
In her professional life, as a Fellow in Arts and Cultural Education, she travelled internationally. But the physical effects of the stroke have forced her into retirement, despite the fact that her speech and mental faculties were unimpaired. She wears a sling to support her left arm because the muscles in her shoulder have atrophied but is thankful that, being right handed, she can still use a computer and write. “My life revolves around media and IT and the written word,” she explained. “It’s like Groundhog Day for the first few months,” she says, “You wake up every morning and think ‘what is this I’ve woken up to’ and you discover new things that you can’t do one-handed.”
Susan was also a patient at Calderdale Royal, before being transferred to the intermediate care facility at the Holme Valley Memorial Hospital. Her garage at home is being converted into a ground floor bedroom so that she can regain independent living.
Like Ken, she had also experienced heart problems before the stroke and underwent a by-pass procedure. “But I was low risk for a stroke,” she says, “I’d never smoked and normally have very low blood pressure. I was fit and active, my only risk factor was high cholesterol.”
Despite her mobility problems, Susan remains hopeful and says she has the support of family and friends in her recovery, as well as regular physiotherapy. She added: “There’s such a thing as neo-plasticity. They now know that a lot of brain cells have been killed off by a stroke, but others can take over the functions. So physiotherapy involved lots of repetitive actions to get the brain working again.”
* The Holme Valley Group is holding a special open meeting on Thursday, May 5, at Holmfirth Methodist Church, from 2 to 4pm. Representatives of the Stroke Association and Locala Community Health are attending and there will be a dedicated section for carers of stroke survivors. New members and those interested in finding out more are welcome.