Teen stroke survivor: everything happens for a reason

Stroke survivor Rebecca Morrow
Stroke survivor Rebecca Morrow

GRAEME COUSINS talks to Rebecca Morrow about life after three strokes she suffered at the age of 18 and how it has channeled her passion for art

A teenage stroke survivor from Carrickfergus has said that she appreciates life more than ever having suffered three strokes in a six month period.

Rebecca Morrow, now 19, was working in Belfast City Centre on July 17, 2017 when she encountered difficulties on her lunch break.

Rebecca recalled: “I had just had lunch when my left side started to fell weak.

“I couldn’t use my left hand to reach up and grab the bathroom light pull-cord.

“I felt kind of funny, with my arm, neck, leg and face falling to one side, as well as my speech becoming slurred and confused.

Rebecca (centre) with her award for Creative Arts along with Victoria Yeates and Markus Birdman

Rebecca (centre) with her award for Creative Arts along with Victoria Yeates and Markus Birdman

“I didn’t really understand what’s was happening to me.

“It all happened very quickly. For the person who is having the stroke it can be quite confusing as you don’t really fully comprehend what is happening.”

Rebecca’s manager at Lisa’s Attic’s Ann Street store spotted that her face had fallen on one side and called for an ambulance after recognising the FAST signs (Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services).

The former pupil of Carrickfergus Grammar School went on to have another stroke later in the ambulance and was also told that she’d had a Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA) also known as a mini-stroke, six months prior.

Rebecca with her artwork

Rebecca with her artwork

She said: “I was very shocked when I found out that I had a total of three strokes.”

Rebecca’s mother Gillian recalled: “It was a normal morning. I was up getting ready for work, so was Rebecca. I dropped her at the train, said, ‘see you later’, that was it.”

At lunch time she was called to say Rebecca had taken ill at work: “I got into the store by which time the paramedics were working with her and I knew to look at her that she’d had a stroke.”

Of her daughter’s resilience she said: “Apart from the tiredness her recovery was amazing.”

Rebecca said: “At 18 I didn’t think a stroke was something to worry about. I was under the same popular opinion that stroke only affected the elderly but sadly as I have now learnt through my own experience and through the Stroke Association stories, stroke is becoming more prevalent in younger generations.”

It was later discovered that Rebecca’s strokes had been caused by a hole in her heart resulting in blood clots that had then travelled to her brain.

She said: “In the stroke unit it suddenly became real. I was the youngest person in there by a long way.

“You go back to being a toddler for a few months where you sleep a lot and you kind of rely on the people around you.

“I know I made a good recovery and I have no visible effects from my stroke but I do live with extreme fatigue.

“I can lead a pretty normal life but when I come home, the overwhelming tiredness hits and I have to go to bed and rest.

“Thankfully I have made a quick and full recovery, with the only side effect being that I still get very tired at times but I am extremely lucky that I have no other lasting effects.”

She commented: “Everything happens for a reason.

“I think that happened probably to make me appreciate what I had.

“I’ve taken up the guitar and I’m now going to art college and then teaching afterwards.

“I’d love to be able to encourage people to follow art. It opens so many doors. It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s what I want to do.”

In September 2018, Rebecca started her foundation art and design course at Ulster University Belfast.

She said: “I’ve always enjoyed painting and it was my childhood dream to go to art college. Art lets you be who you want to be. At my former school, my art teacher said that my stroke was something unique that I could explore so I used a copy of my brain scan in my A-level art piece.

“I really want people to see beyond the limitation of stroke and I think through art, I can explore how I am more than my stroke.”

Rebecca’s A-level artwork which tackled the topic of freedom and limitation gained her recognition in the form of a national award.

The 19-year-old won a Life After Stroke award in recognition of her paintings inspired by her recovery after stroke.

Rebecca developed a project with the message of overlooking the limitation of someone’s illness or disability and looking at the actual person.

She said: “I created a large painting of items that make me who I am and covered it with a curtain, which I finished with linear medical drawings, so at the exhibition the viewer had to pull back the curtain of limitation to see the freedom of the person’s personality.

The Stroke Association’s ‘Life After Stroke Creative Arts Award’ was presented to Rebecca by comedian Markus Birdman and actress Victoria Yeates at a ceremony at the Landmark hotel in London on Wednesday, November 21.

She said: “I’m really lucky to be able to pursue my interest in art and what inspires me the most is the one thing that could’ve stopped me – stroke.”

She added: “I think at the end of the day what I’ve learnt from the whole experience and people have learnt from my art is that you appreciate life a wee bit more after it happens because it can be taken away pretty quickly.

“It’s nice to have that escape through art. Everyone can do art, it doesn’t matter if you’re a great painter or not.

“I’m quite lucky that I’m actually able to do this. And I’m doing it about what could have stopped me.

“I’m looking at the stroke and being like, ‘you haven’t got me yet’. It’s like a rebellion against it.”

Following her experience, Rebecca has thrown herself into raising awareness of stroke particularly in younger people and has shared her experience with students at her former school as well as fundraising for the Stroke Association.

Sharon Millar from the Speech and Language Therapy team at Stroke Association, nominated Rebecca for a ‘Life After Stroke’ award which she won earlier this month.

She said: “I’m just thrilled that Rebecca has won. I first met her at Stroke Association’s Step Out for Stroke fundraising walking event held in Antrim back in May and I was immediately struck by Rebecca’s determination to beat the effects of her strokes and lead the life she wants to lead.

“I feel that Rebecca deserves recognition for her obvious artistic talent but also the courage, determination and energy she has to campaign for Stroke Association.

“The way in which Rebecca has incorporated her feelings about her stroke in to her art work is incredibly creative and I wish her all the very best with her university career and beyond.”

Rebecca is also supporting the Stroke Association’s Christmas appeal, ‘I am more than my stroke’.

The appeal raises money so the charity can help more stroke survivors live with the impact of their stroke because it may have changed their lives but it doesn’t need to define who they are now as a person.

The Stroke Association charity provides specialist services and vital emotional and practical support to stroke survivors and their families across Northern Ireland and the UK.

Support includes Life After Stroke grants to fund essential equipment, life-changing speech and language therapy programmes for people with communication difficulties following stroke and long-term support with stroke recovery.

A spokesperson said: “We also offer peer support through community based groups who meet regularly.

“Stroke survivors and their families can also register on ‘My Stroke Guide’ which gives you free access to trusted information about different types of stroke, risk factors and secondary conditions.

“We believe in life after stroke and together we can conquer stroke. We work directly with stroke survivors and their families and carers, with health and social care professionals and with scientists and researchers. We campaign to improve stroke care and support people to make the best recovery they can. We fund research to develop new treatments and ways of preventing stroke.”

A stroke is a brain attack which happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, caused by a clot or bleeding in the brain.

There are over 1.2 million people in the UK living with the effects of stroke which includes almost 37,000 people living in Northern Ireland.

To find out more visit www.stroke.org.uk or call the Stroke Helpline on 0303 3033 100.

Visit stroke.org.uk/iammore to make a donation.