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Christopher's Story

Here former stroke patient, Chistopher Wood, shares his story:

I had a stroke at home during the evening of Saturday 29th April, 2009. I was taken to the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Tests were conducted which confirmed that I had indeed had a stroke and sometime during Monday 1st May 2006 I was transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to the specialist Stroke Unit at the hospital, where I remained until being discharged on Monday 21st August, 2006.

On the night I was taken to hospital, I walked from my house to the ambulance that was waiting outside. I also remember that during my first night in hospital, I walked unaided from my bed to the toilet and back again. But by the time I woke up on my first morning as a patient in the Stroke Unit, I couldn't walk at all because the left side of my body was completely paralysed. This change in my condition has often puzzled me since. Did I have a second stroke within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital ... or was the left-sided paralysis I experienced a late effect of the initial stroke ... or was it something else altogether ? Whatever the reason was, I knew immediately I realised that half my body was paralysed that the road to recovery was likely to be a long one because apart from the physical damage the stroke had caused, there was also a lot of emotional and psychological damage too.

I don't think I was a particularly good patient but I have to say the care and support I received from the staff at the hospital was wonderful. They gave me renewed hope when my own hope was fading. They encouraged me and supported me every step of the way, even though it was a while before I was physically able to take any steps at all. The kind and dedicated staff in the Physiotherapy Department were probably responsible for that (getting me walking again) and without that help it is unlikely that I would have been able to walk out of the hospital into a waiting car towards the end of August nearly four months after my admission.

Being at home again presented me with fresh challenges. I was familiar with the location but not the circumstances. Having to go up and down the stairs several times a day was exhausting and I found it impossible to maintain a house and a garden the way I had been able to before. It was probably inevitable that in the end I made a decision to move out of my house and into accommodation that was much more suitable for me ... a ground-floor flat in a new block of flats no more than half a mile from my house. I also found myself being the owner of a car that I could no longer drive because I couldn't change gear, put the handbrake on, etc. or do anything with my left hand. My leg continued to recover slowly but my arm did not. That was very frustrating and irritating but I was told it often happens that way. Strokes are indiscriminate and affect different people in different ways; recovery from stroke is also very individual.

Before I was taken ill, I had attended a lot of football and rugby matches. I wanted to resume that part of my life but it seemed like an impossible dream when I could only walk short distances initially and even that left me tired and breathless. Family, friends and neighbours were very supportive and I also had the Internet to keep me in touch with the outside world, a world that I often felt I was no longer part of. It was the Internet that made me aware of a big football match between Russia and England that was to be played in Moscow in the middle of October, 2007. I had been to Russia as a tourist in the mid-1970's and I thought it would be interesting to go back and see how much the country and its capital city had changed since the old Soviet Union had been broken up in the early 1990's. So nearly a year before the game was due to be played, I decided to book up for a 3-night trip with an agency that specialises in trips to Russia for groups and individuals.

At the time I booked to go on that trip, I found it impossible to believe that I would be well/strong enough to go. But it was months away so I hoped and believed it might be possible as 2006 turned into 2007. In March, 2007 I followed up information given to me by the hospital and went for a driving assessment at a Disability Living Centre in Bristol. That assessment went well and I then liaised with the DVLA in Swansea who eventually decided that I could drive again as long as it was in a car with automatic transmission that also had a specially-adapted steering column. So in June, 2007 I bought a car with that modification and being able to drive again has made an enormous difference to my life because I no longer need to rely on friends, neighbours or taxis to get me from A to B.

The months of 2007 flew by and I put the Russia trip to the back of my mind. But after I had moved from a house into a flat in July, I found myself thinking more and more about the trip ... and whether it was still wise to go. But I knew when I had booked to go that there would be risks involved. I just had to convince myself that yes, it would be tough but yes, I was strong enough to undergo a trip of such magnitude.

In the early hours of Tuesday 16th October, 2007 I drove from Gloucester to Birmingham airport, parked my car in a long-stay car park and hobbled across to the departures terminal with my luggage on a trolley to wait for my flight. There were no direct flights to/from Russia; I had to change planes at Munich on the way out and Frankfurt on the way back. We were not accompenied by a representative of the travel company with whom I had booked but there were lots of other English football supporters on the flights I took. When we arrived in Moscow, the scene inside the arrivals hall was complete chaos with many unofficial taxi touts trying to persuade visitors to use them to take them to their hotels. I found a group of English guys who had also booked with the same company as me and eventually we found a man who was holding a placard with the name of the travel company on it. He picked up my suitcase and headed for the exit door. The rest of the group picked up their own luggage and followed him to a minibus that was parked outside. FOUR HOURS later he dropped me off at my hotel, having dropped everyone else off at a hotel in another part of town. The driver couldn't or wouldn't speak English but what he could do was drive through the chaos that is modern-day Moscow traffic. By the time he dropped me off outside my hotel I was cold, hungry, tired and a little bit scared of this crazy Russian driver in whose company I had spent so long. But the hotel reception confirmed I was booked in there and eventually with enormous relief I walked into a comfortable room that was warm, clean and comfortable. The hot water worked too !

The travel agency (Russian Gateway) had arranged for a tour of the city centre the next morning, which was also matchday. We met our tour-guide for the day, a pleasant Muscovite lady who spoke excellent English but I wasn't too pleased to see that our driver was the same man who had taken me on a world tour the previous evening. So I wasn't too surprised when just outside the city-centre the minibus was stopped at some traffic-lights and our driver was 'escorted' to a green saloon car on the other side of the road. Apparently his papers were not in order, either his own or the vehicles but we didn't find out which because we never saw him again. It took two hours before a replacement driver arrived. We were dropped off at one side of Red Square and by the time we had walked through it the minibus was waiting for us to take us back to the hotel. For me it was fascinating to be back there after over 30 years but walking over the cobbles of Red Square was very demanding for me but my fold-away metal stick certainly helped, as did all the other passengers on the bus.

Different transport took us from the hotel to the Luzhniki Stadium. Despite England's defeat, it was a memorable experience being there. By the time the game started at 6 p.m. local time, I was really feeling the effects of doing so much walking earlier when added to the stress of our driver being arrested ! It took ages to get away after the match but eventually we got back to the hotel and I went out for a meal and a few drinks with some of the other guys, one of whom kindly escorted me back to the hotel around 2 in the morning.

I had booked to stay an extra day but about the only thing I did was book a taxi to take me from the hotel to the airport the next day. I wasn't going to risk using the travel agency's driver after what had already happened. On the day of my departure, I was in the airport around 7 hours before my flight was due to leave. Even then it nearly left without me ! I had mislaid my flight coupon and they wouldn't initially let me on the plane despite me telling them that I couldn't have got a boarding-card without a flight coupon. In the end common sense prevailed or it could be that the airport staff realised that they would have had to take my luggage off the plane if they didn't allow me to board it. Also, my visa expired at midnight which would have caused different problems for them (and me!) to deal with.

The flights were uneventful. The transfers in Munich and Frankfurt were difficult because I couldn't hold my arms to be frisked like an able-bodied traveller and I don't think the airport staff in Germany or Russia showed as much concern about my obviously disabled status as they could have done. I got back to Birmingham airport at about 11.30 in the evening so it was after 1 the next morning before I was safely tucked up in my own bed for the first time since the previous Sunday night/Monday morning.

The facts say I travelled from Gloucester to Moscow on my own and got back safely a few days later. Lots of things went wrong on the trip, most of which were out of my control. Physically it was incredibly demanding and I could certainly have done without all the mental/emotional stress of 'bus driver being arrested, not being allowed on the plane home', etc. But this arduous trip helped me to learn about myself too, what I might be capable of and that's it's alright to set yourself targets as long as they aren't too high. Probably it was risky for me to undergo a trip like that so soon after suffering a stroke and at a time when I still had a lot of mobility difficulties. But I did it ... and I returned to tell the tale ... and that is something I can probably be very proud of. If I hadn't had a stroke, it is most unlikely that I would have booked on this trip. But my circumstances changed, my Life changed and I knew I would have to do things in a different way. I didn't want anyone else on the trip to feel sorry for me because I am disabled but they were great and nobody made an issue out of it. The guy who kindly escorted me back to my hotel said he felt very humble in my presence when he realised I had travelled so far in my condition just to see a football match. I didn't feel humble. I was just proud that I had set myself a possibly unrealistic target and had actually managed to achieve it.