Pam Scharneck has come to her weekly Stroke Aid
support group at South Rand hospital to play beer pong. Only instead of beer,
the plastic cups are filled with cookies. She has been seated in her wheelchair
at the head of the table, a mischievous smile playing across her face as she
reaches for the bright yellow balls, bouncing them eagerly across the table
towards the arranged cups.
“I am thankful for the stroke aid group,” Pam
later shares. “If it wasn't for them I wouldn't have been able to do what I am
doing. It has given me a lot of courage.”
Number one cause of disability
Alongside weekly games aimed to promote mobility,
the Stroke Aid support group provides moral and social support to survivors
overcoming the trauma of one of South Africa’s highly common lifestyle
diseases. Ten South Africans suffer a stroke – a sudden interruption of blood
supply to the brain – every hour. This
is often linked to other lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and
hypertension that are taking lives across South Africa and the rest of the
continent. In South Africa, 45% of adults suffer from high blood pressure.
Worldwide, strokes are the number one cause of disability and number three
cause of death.
Pam is a 91-year-old survivor of five strokes as
well as a heart attack. Her doctors have told her that her hypertension is to
blame. What Pam didn’t know two years ago, was that her 63-year-old son Darryl
had also developed diabetes. Darryl was one of the patients moved from a Life Esidimeni psychiatric homes into
ill-equipped and underfunded NGOs in 2016.
“Oh, I got no words,” says Pam, her voice
breaking as she recounts the memory of having her son relocated without her
knowledge. “I thought I was getting another stroke again, it was too much for
me. Not knowing if he was alive. It was only when he came home the following
day, he just sort of went into a kind of a coma and I thought he was dying in
Both Pam and Darryl were rushed to South Rand
hospital where they were stabilised. They are two of the luckier South Africans
who have recovered from the lifestyle diseases sweeping across the country.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 225 South Africans are killed by
heart diseases every day.
And yet it is not only the elderly who are impacted.
Desperation for answers
Phumeh Mathonsi is a 27-year-old stroke survivor
in Mpumuza Location in rural KwaZulu Natal. When her mother found her lying on
the floor, crying out in pain at 2am, they did not know that she had suffered a
“We used traditional medicines on Friday and
Saturday. Then on Sunday afternoon our congregation came to pray for her. And
then as a family we decided to take her to the hospital,” says her mother
Thulisile, who has since quit her job to support Phumeh after her stroke. Her
comment speaks to the family’s desperation for answers.
They would have to wait one year for an MRI scan.
In the interim, left alone with their questions, Phumeh began to face
ostracisation in the community who suspected her of being the victim of
“When I was able to walk again, I would walk
around the community and I would see people whispering, talking about me.” She
lost friends and family, entering a depression that is commonly seen among
stroke survivors in response to the isolation they face.
Not far from Mpumuza location, traditional healer
Sebenzile Ndlovu, is seeing more and more stroke survivors coming to her for
assistance. She believes that traditional beliefs can coexist with medical
treatment. “Many people are suffering. You go into a taxi, there is a person
with a stick. You go into the store, there is a person with a stick. There is a
person with a wheelchair. There is a stroke crisis in our community.”
Ndlovu uses traditional healing methods, and then
she also refers the survivors to the hospital. Strokes, she says, come in
different forms – ancestral messages, bewitchment, and lifestyle diseases.
Either way, she challenges the ostracisation of stroke survivors. “It is very
difficult because they are still people,” she says. “They are still alive.”
Social ostracisation, paired with rural
isolation, means accessing adequate care is a daily challenge for stroke
survivors who should ideally be getting daily rehabilitation from occupational
therapists, physiotherapists and speech therapists.
“If you don’t
live in the city or near a hospital and you are a person with a disability
there are almost no services for you,” says Kate Sherry, managing director of
the NGO CREATE, which campaigns for community based rehabilitation and
integration of people with disabilities.
“More than 40% of
SA’s population live in rural areas and at the moment, access to rehab in
rural areas is slim to none.”
'We have lost our dignity'
for example, there are 458 occupational therapists, 940 physiotherapists and 88
speech therapists for a population of 10.3 million people. This is before one
considers the hard-to-reach rural spaces that even ambulances struggle to
With these challenges in mind, community support
for stroke survivors is of utmost urgency. Sadly, recent funding cuts by the
National Lottery for the Stroke Aid support groups around the country mean more
survivors may be left isolated, unable to celebrate the fact that this
condition did not take their lives as it has so many other South Africans.
and the community need more interest in one another,” says Pam, as a nurse
gently raises her off her wheelchair. “We have lost our dignity. Do you know
that the people who are disabled are just hungry for friendship?” she says,
before tightly holding on to her walking stick and slowly making her way down
the hospital passageway. – Health-e News.
Image credit: iStock