Updated 19 March 2015

Real life story: What it feels like to experience a stroke

George Scola suffered a stroke at age 37, but decided he would not let it defeat him. He has since gone on to co-found The Stroke Survivors Foundation. This is his story . . .

As an overweight, stressed, 1.88 metre, 37-year-old business owner, I was not by any stretch of the imagination in "peak physical condition". I was a light smoker, did not drink and did not have high cholesterol or blood pressure.

I was a passionate motorbike adventurer, doing a 400km ride almost every weekend, and this was part and parcel of my busy lifestyle. The last thing I expected, almost four weeks after I turned 37 on the 26th of April 2008, was a stroke, brought on by anti-cardiolipin syndrome (a condition increases your risk of blood clots and consequently, your risk of stroke).

We were moving house on  a Saturday and I had no idea what was happening when I slid to the floor while leaning against the wall because I felt dizzy. I suddenly found I could not straighten my leg or move my arm. I tried to talk, but all that came out of my mouth was garbage. Fortunately the entire episode was completely pain free. There is no history of stroke or heart attack in my family, but I was living with a lot of work-related stress at the time.

The possibility that I was having a stroke – a pretty dramatic way to try get out of moving – never crossed my mind; in fact I did not even know what a stroke was! Thankfully, my friend realised what was happening and immediately called my wife. An ambulance arrived and I was taken to hospital within 45 minutes.

Lying in the ambulance, I knew something serious was wrong because of my paralysed arm and leg and loss of speech, but I only fully understood the bigger picture a couple of days later. I was in total shock but soon came to realise I had two choices: to give up and accept defeat or to get out there and make things happen. I certainly was not prepared for someone to tie my shoe laces every day – something I had learned to do when I was two years old. There was absolutely no way I was going to accept that as my fate!

I wasn’t prepared to take things lying down and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I still had my whole life ahead of me and a motorbike waiting for me to explore the world, so I accepted the situation as something I just had to deal with – and that’s when the biggest challenge of my life began.

Read: Stroke - what to do in an emergency

Picking myself up again

It’s hard to comprehend what's happened to you when you've had a stroke.

During my years as an active sportsman with provincial and national sporting colours, I had many injuries. When you’re in rehab, your brain teaches the injured joint or the limb how to function again. With a stroke it’s pretty much in reverse – all the muscles and joints are working but the brain isn’t, and it’s pretty tough trying to re-programme your brain. I mean, there is no manual for that, is there?

With the support of a team of brilliant therapists, and my family and friends, I learnt how to walk and talk again. It takes determination and probably a stubborn personality at times to accept having to take baby steps. You can only start making progress once you've accepted your condition. Being fed and having your bottom wiped tests your guts and determination to the utmost. It’s all about character, the will to overcome and most importantly, remain positive through all the emotional hardships that you encounter along the road to recover – a lengthy and frustrating process.

Having a stroke in your 30’s definitely tests your personal relationships – I don’t think people realise the strain that a stroke places on family and friends. It is exceptionally difficult for them to adjust and handle the after-effects of a stroke. As a result, within eight months of my stroke, I found myself getting divorced and losing my business.

Having experienced the lack of support, and of state-funded rehab centres, I co-founded the Stroke Survivors Foundation in February 2010. The sole purpose for creating the Stroke Survivors Foundation is to assist stroke survivors, their families and their caregivers to survive the trauma and to give them the knowledge needed to cope with the incident and to recover.

The motivation to create the Stroke Survivors Foundation (SSF) came from the real-life experiences that Charlene Murray and I, both having had strokes in our 30s, shared, and the appreciation of the support structure that both of us enjoy.

As time went on and our recovery progressed, we began to comprehend the difficulty of adjusting back into society, back to what we considered a normal lifestyle.

Stroke is a silent killer, but this does not mean we just have to accept it and fight on our own. Having survived the stroke is the easy part. Recovering, adjusting and acknowledging the disability; patience for the survivor and their caregivers; staying motivated and staying positive – this is the difference between conquering and overcoming the problem or taking it lying down.

Read: Stroke is a leading killer in SA

Bring It On Campaign

The walk from Beit Bridge, on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, to Cape Point was the first project of the Stroke Survivors Foundation. The aims of the walk were to:

- Raise stroke awareness

- Create awareness of the foundation

- Populate a database of stroke survivors as well as all medical practitioners and therapists involved with stroke

- Raise funds for the foundation

- Hopefully motivate fellow stroke survivors to believe that there is life after surviving a stroke

The walk began on the 15th of August 2010 and finished at Cape Point on the 26 February 2011. Reduced to walking slowly and with a limp as a result of the stroke, I walked a total of 2473 km,  at an average of between 18 to 20 km per day for three consecutive days, with a rest on the fourth day before continuing. On my rest day, I would visit hospitals, clinics and fellow stroke survivors.

george scola

It was an absolutely amazing experience. I saw parts of South Africa that I'd never seen before and also experienced things from a different perspective. Driving a car at 120 km/h is way different to walking at 3 km/h. I walked through unbearable heat (50°C plus), through rain storms and strong winds. I walked on everything from quiet tar roads in the Bushveld, to gravel roads along the Vaal River, to gutters on the Meiringspoort Pass and even on stone and shale.

One thing I can say about South Africa is that we live in an amazing country – beautiful beyond belief and populated by people who are the salt of the earth and whose kindness know no limits.

There are so many things I have learnt from having a stroke. The most important lessons for me are learning to be patient with myself, to enjoy life a little bit more, and to take the time to appreciate the world and the people around me.

Stroke is the leading cause of disability in South Africa. It puts a huge burden on the family, emotionally and financially, especially when the family's breadwinner suffers a stroke and is unable to return to work.

To learn more about the Stroke Survivors Foundation's work, visit their website.

Read more:

What is a stroke?

Causes of a stroke

Treating a stroke


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