Getting back on her feet
Catherine Lee encountered two stroke symptoms in 2020 and wrote it off until she had to go to the hospital.
Catherine Lee was prescribed medication by her doctor for her hypertension and high cholesterol. She was taking it regularly, but then she started letting things slide – being inconsistent for six months and also, not keeping active, only engaging in light stretching exercises daily. As a result, her health may have paid the ultimate price. During that time, the 63-year-old experienced stroke symptoms on two occasions.
Two stroke symptoms
The first time was in mid-July 2020 when her left arm suddenly felt heavy and numb. Catherine lives with her husband and a helper, as well as her granddaughter whom she watches for the day while her parents work. She didn’t think it was anything serious and slapped her arm hard thinking the sensations would disappear, which they did. Then came a problem with her vision where she had what is called a retinal migraine. This is when one briefly goes blind or complain of visual problems such as flashing lights in one eye. In Catherine’s case, her vision was partially blocked in one eye.
The grandmother of one addressed this by going for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The therapist used the blood-letting cupping method where he or she puts special cups on one’s skin for a few minutes to create suction with the intent to help with pain, inflammation, blood flow, etc. She did this for three months and felt she was getting better. Looking back, she thinks she had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), which is often called a mini-stroke but that can’t be confirmed said the marine sales manager. As most TIA symptoms last from only a few minutes up to 24 hours, according to the American Stroke Association, they are often dismissed and not taken seriously. But, it said, “it’s really a major warning sign”.
The second time Catherine experienced stroke symptoms was in December that same year. She was having a nap with her granddaughter who was lying on her left arm and she felt numbness on her arm again. She remarked, “I thought it was due to my granddaughter sleeping on my arm.” Like in her first episode, she slapped her arm hard and the symptoms eventually dissipated. However, three hours later, she began feeling heaviness in her feet, in particular her left foot. She even called her doctor who advised her to go to the hospital quickly as it might be a stroke. “I was still moving and talking well; the seriousness of it didn’t sink in then,” said Catherine. She called for an ambulance and was sent to Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
As it was into the early months of the pandemic and no family members were allowed in the A&E, she was there on her own. She shared that she did a brain scan and a chest X-ray. “I could still move my left arm and leg though a little weak,” she said. She then contemplated on whether to proceed with Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA), a protein involved in the breakdown of blood clots so as to restore blood flow to the ischemic region of the brain. As she was having vaginal spotting despite being past menopause and her doctor was concerned about the high risk of internal bleeding, she was given aspirin instead. By midnight while in the hospital, she lost mobility in her left limbs.
After several days at SGH and still unable to walk and lift her left hand, she went to Outram Community Hospital. There she regained some leg strength on her left side after three to four weeks at the hospital. She then was transferred to St Luke’s Hospital Day Rehabilitation Centre for her rehabilitation for a year before moving to Stroke Support Station or S3, a non-profit organisation at the Enabling Village that supports post-stroke rehabilitation needs, which was closer to her home. She still continues her rehabilitation and goes there twice a week.
Though she can walk better now and has regained more than 70 percent of her strength in her left hand, she continues to persist. “It’s been a slow and tiring road to recovery. I exercise much more now though there are many days of laziness. I do my morning arm and leg exercises for an hour or so taught by the therapists. I also exercise at the exercise corner while my granddaughter plays in the nearby playground with my helper.”
She also joins other stroke survivors for aqua therapy once a week. “We cycle on the aqua bike to increase mobility and strength in our legs and ankles. The lovely volunteers help us to paddle in the water by supporting us through the use of pool noodles. I have made lots of friends through the stroke community, and we share experiences and encourage each other. It has humbled me and made me more patient as I have to keep my blood pressure down.
“I am always praying for a miracle to get back my full mobility so that I can explore more of the world with my family and granddaughter. I am also willing to try all kinds of treatments such as TCM including acupuncture and shockwave therapy. I have also become more resilient in pushing myself to overcome my disability despite the pain and constant tiredness,” said Catherine.
She added that she has not returned to her normal routines just yet which includes her driving and exploring Singapore on her off-days and weekends. But, she has adapted – “I travel by bus and train now, and my work, church and granddaughter keeps me busy. I try to bring her out together with my husband and helper as much as I can before she starts school next year at the age of three.”
Looking back, Catherine has seen the error in her ways and is doing what she can to advise others not to make the same mistakes – “Don’t miss taking your medicine, exercise daily even though it’s painful and tough, and improvement seems minimal. Sleep well and change your diet to eat healthily. If you feel that something is not right with you, trust your instincts and get yourself checked as soon as possible. Don’t brush it off that it’ll go away. Some warning signs are not the usual or common signs.”
She added: “Stay positive if you’re struck down and work hard to get yourself back on your feet. It’s only yourself who can get you back on your feet.”