Lisa Simonet, 51, thought her life was over when she suffered a spinal stroke.
Every day when I walk along the beach, watching my doberman Magnus patrol for seagulls, and my puppy Hope digging in the sand, I realise how lucky I am to be here after my life changed dramatically in the blink of an eye. I’d had an ordinary Saturday in May 2017, washing the car and chatting on the phone to my younger sister Helen. I worked as a manager at an insurance brokers so at the weekends I loved my long clifftop walks with the dogs. That day, I’d walked Magnus and my other dog, Louie, a beagle cross, who now lives with my 90-year-old dad John in the flat above mine.
I went to bed that night feeling healthy, but in the early hours I was woken by a crushing pain beneath my breastbone, at the top of my stomach.
Tossing and turning, I thought I had a horrible bug and I might be sick.
Then the pain started to disappear and I felt this utter relief for a few seconds. But I knew something else was going on. I felt a strange warmth flood down my legs. It was like the effects of an epidural I had years earlier before an operation.
Starting to panic, I knew I needed to get from my bedroom to the phone in the lounge. I tried to sit up, but I wobbled over. Then I slid off the bed and pulled myself across the floor. Luckily, my older sister Fran who lives a few minutes away from me answered her phone and set off round to my flat.
When Fran found me I was lying on the floor and I couldn’t move from my waist down.
She called for an ambulance and I ended up being flown from the Mignot Memorial Hospital on Alderney to the Princess Elizabeth Hospital on Guernsey, before a 45-minute flight to Southampton General Hospital.
Although I wasn’t in any pain by this stage, I felt sick inside because I was so scared. The thought that I might die and never see my family, friends or my dogs again was gnawing away at me.
Walking had been my passion. I was out three times a day with Magnus.
At Southampton, after tests and MRI scans, the neurosurgeon diagnosed that I had suffered a spinal stroke.
Lisa was healthy and didn’t know what had caused her stroke until she visited a private doctor.
I was told they’re less common than strokes that affect the brain. I’d never smoked, I had a fairly healthy diet and I exercised. I thought strokes happened to other – older – people.
I buried my head in the pillow when a nurse washed me. It felt that life as I knew it was over and my new life was degrading. Despite the tests, no one knew why it had happened.
‘I want every test available,’ I told the consultant. ‘I can’t live with not knowing what caused it. Every twinge, every ache, every pain… I’ll think I’m having another stroke.’
But after five days, I decided to use my private health insurance to get some answers and I moved to The Wellington Hospital in north-west London.
There, I had a transoesophageal echocardiogram, where a probe containing an ultrasound transducer is passed down the oesophagus.
This sent soundwaves to my heart and collected the echoes that bounced back. For half an hour I gagged and wretched, but we found out why the stroke had happened.
The consultant, Iqbal Malik, explained I had a PFO, a patent foramen ovale, which is a hole in the heart.
He said we’re all born with a flap in our heart, but they normally close when we take our first breath. Within three days, in three quarters of the population, the flap is completely sealed.
For the other quarter, problems only arise if the blood that leaks through contains a clot. Unfortunately, the hole in my heart was one of the biggest the consultant had ever seen.
Lisa had a hole in her heart – one of the biggest her consultant had ever seen.
Two months after my stroke, I had an operation to seal the hole. Under a general anaesthetic, the procedure was done via a catheter that went in through my groin. As I came round, the consultant leaned over me and said, ‘That needed to be closed.’
As I lay in bed, I thought back to when I was well. For a fortnight before the stroke, Magnus refused to leave my side. At work, he’d lie under my desk and he followed me everywhere, as if he sensed something bad was about to happen.
Just thinking about him made me determined to get myself up and moving.
‘Will I walk again?’ I asked the doctors.
‘Everyone is different,’ they told me. ‘We can’t say yes and give you hope where there is none.’
But hope was all I had and I sat for days and weeks staring at my feet and willing them to move. My left leg had partial movement but there was nothing in my right leg.
One day I was staring so hard and my right big toe moved. I couldn’t believe it. That was the moment I knew I’d walk again. I started using my arms to lift myself up. I was determined to get my strength up and walk. Once I’d had that first movement, the rest came back quite quickly.
After a few days my foot started to move. I refused a Zimmer frame because it made me feel old. ‘You might fall,’ the hospital staff
‘Then catch me!’ I replied, shuffling along the hospital corridors with a crutch.
After five weeks in The Wellington, my physiotherapy became more intensive. I was taught how to stand so I could cook again. I loved the hydrotherapy in the swimming pool.
I walked to the park at St John’s Wood. I even got the bus and the Underground – with help the first few times – and took myself out to the cinema.
Finally, after four months, I was given the go-ahead to go home. As I walked out of hospital, my consultant admitted he’d never expected me to walk again.
My cousin Mel had been looking after Magnus and I couldn’t wait to see them, along with my dad and my other dog Louie. My dad met me at Alderney Airport, with Louie in the car, squealing with excitement.
It was strange going home, knowing that I would have to do things for myself. We all suspected Magnus would go berserk when he saw me – and he did.
He clambered all over me! But Louie had been happy with my dad so we decided he’d stay there.
For the first few days my mind was all over the place. Nothing made sense. But as the weeks went by, I went out more. I gained confidence. I also fell a lot, but I got back up and kept going.
Mel came walking with me, and dad drove me to the beach so I could walk along the sand and let the dogs have a run. I’ve even been for swims in the Channel with Magnus.
Against all advice, I decided to get another dog last year. She is Magnus’s niece, a doberman puppy. At first Magnus was disgusted with me. He stared at me, and every time she moved, he growled at her.
But he soon engaged with her and they’ve become good friends. I called her Hope, because of all I’d been through and because without hope, there is nothing.
I looked for the spark of hope, no matter how small it was, and I let that flame burn. That’s what got me walking in the end.”
Source: Daily Express