Anyone Can Have A Stroke – Act F.A.S.T. And You Can Help Save Someone’s Life

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Tom Dyer was as fit as a fiddle when he had a stroke. As a 44-year-old personal trainer married to a nutritionist, Jess, you can well imagine what kind of shape he was in – which meant that he was completely blindsided when he suffered a stroke during a hike around Cape Town’s Table Mountain in December last year.

Coach spoke to Dyer about his stroke and subsequent recovery, and also asked him to explain the F.A.S.T. system, which helps you to recognise stroke symptoms. If you spot the symptoms in someone you’re with, call an ambulance as soon as possible.

What happened to you?

We were in Cape Town for a wedding and I’d planned this hike up Table Mountain. There are some beautiful hikes all round the national park. I’d spotted this one called the Skeleton Gorge that I thought would be a nice challenge.

We got to the top, and had a break and some snacks. We were going along a ridge to head back down and I felt this pain in my head. The only way I describe it is like being hit in the head with an axe. It was excruciatingly painful. I’m not someone who gets migraines or headaches as a rule, so I thought something was definitely up. I didn’t mention to Jess at first, we kept walking along, but then I had to sit down. It was really painful.

I’ve talked to the doctors since and we’re unsure if this was a first stroke. I got a little bit dizzy but it wasn’t too bad, and I thought we could get back down. The walk back down was really steep – I didn’t say how bad my balance was – but the headache started to go away. I thought maybe it was altitude sickness, although it wasn’t a high altitude at all. We started to go down and I went back to feeling normal, so I just forgot all about it, as you do.

We were in Kirstenbosch Gardens, which are beautiful. There’s a tree canopy walk, and we had to gain altitude to do that. We started to do that and after about a minute or so the pain came back with a vengeance. I got really dizzy and started to feel really nauseous.

In hindsight it was kind of like when you’re really drunk and all over the place. We went back down a little bit and I collapsed on this area of grass in the gardens. I felt really sick and had no balance whatsoever. I was violently sick for about an hour or so I guess. It wasn’t quite how we’d planned the day!

All the symptoms were like I was really drunk, but I hadn’t drunk any alcohol that day. My wife thought it might be a gastro problem, and then she heard my voice was slurring a little bit, and thought we needed to call the paramedics.

At hospital I was told I’d had a brain haemorrhage in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that is affected when you are drunk. It affects balance, co-ordination, things like that. They were giving me different scans and we were pretty scared.

It turned out I’d had a stroke – a rare form of it. Most strokes are caused by hypertension or high blood pressure or the arteries furring up so you get a blood clot, but mine was a bleed from one of the vessels in my head. They said it could have happened at any point during my life – it just blew out and it filled up a part of my cerebellum.

How has your recovery been?

I was in hospital in Cape Town for 16 days. Afterwards I couldn’t walk or stand up without help, and I couldn’t speak properly – my speech was very slurred. I keep going back to it, but the only way I can describe it is I sounded very drunk. It was scary. I had a speech therapist, a physiotherapist, and someone to help with my motor skills – putting bottle tops on and off, flipping coins. A friend of mine bought me some Lego Technic kit, which has been really good for the rehab.

They had to fly a nurse out to pick me up and take me back to the UK. We were a bit worried about the flight, because the worst thing through it all was that I was really sick all the time – I just felt awful. That was because of the swelling on the brain.

Since I’ve been back in the UK I’ve been going to a physio and they have been really impressed with how much I’ve recovered in seven weeks. My voice is about 98%, my walking is pretty well there and I’ve just started cycling again. The doctor just signed me off to drive again, so the recovery is well ahead of schedule. They said it could be six to 12 months before you’re talking or walking properly again, which was a bit scary, but we got through it.

The main thing I took from it all was that this was something that could happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy you are. What does matter is that if you’re healthy as I was, you’re a lot more likely to survive it and then recover from it, because a lot of people who have strokes sadly never fully recover. I’ve probably still got some gaps in there that I haven’t worked out and my right hand still isn’t 100% for signing my name and stuff, but a lot of people never regain their walking, talking or some of their motor function, so I feel very lucky.

What is the Act F.A.S.T. Stroke campaign?

The Act F.A.S.T. Campaign is something I’d heard of and seen adverts for before I went to South Africa, but I’ll be honest we get bombarded by different things all the time and we take in a few of them, not all of them, so it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. But now I’m well aware of what F.A.S.T. stands for:

F is for face – if you see someone’s face drop a little bit, that’s a sign of stroke.
A is for arm – if their arm seems to lose power or if you hold their arm up and it just drops down or droops, or they don’t have skills in their fingers, that’s another sign.
S – the big one for me was speech. Mine was very slurred and that’s very common, and some people can’t speak at all. The mind is on point, but the speaking goes.
T is for time, and that’s just call an ambulance as quickly as possible.

They’re the main ones but I’d add a couple to that – I had dizziness and sickness with the stroke I had. If you feel dizzy, nauseous, with no balance, and you’re conscious of your speech slurring, just get someone to call an ambulance as quickly as possible. The quicker they deal with it, the more likely you are to recover quickly.

For more about the Act F. A. S. T. campaign visit, like the Facebook page and follow @actfast999 on Twitter

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.