This is a story courage and resilience penned by a remarkable woman Dr Lavina Codd who shares her personal experience of suffering from a stroke and how she later went on to become a Stroke Researcher at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland.
Most people associate being old, overweight and male with being at risk of stroke. At 31, standing in the emergency room at the hospital in a ball gown, I was none of those things. I was a non-smoking young mother of two with a raging headache. Only later would I learn that I would have difficulty recognising my children’s faces after experiencing a debilitating stroke.
I was attending a function for my husband’s work when it struck, taking with it my memories and part of my vision. Initially, because of my young age, I was misdiagnosed with a migraine and sent home from hospital. As a result, I missed out on critical treatment with clot-busting drugs that could have minimised my injury. The symptoms of my stroke didn’t manifest themselves externally; unlike other survivors, I don’t have paralysis or speech problems. Instead, my deficits are hidden: I can’t see on my left side and have trouble with spatial navigation and memory formation.
Before my stroke I was taking a career break from being a chartered accountant and had returned to university to study science. It is confronting when you’re used to being an intelligent person to suddenly not be able to remember where anything is or conversations that you’ve had. There’s a cruel irony to be in a situation where your children are forming their first precious memories and you can barely remember their names. With a two-year-old daughter and an 11-month-old son, I was tormented by my inability to recognise their faces and the reality of getting lost in places as familiar as my own home.
Although I’d improved a lot, a year after the stroke I still wasn’t confident that I’d remember what my daughter looked like – I would always verbally memorise what she was wearing as a backup in case I couldn’t recognise her face when I picked her up from day care.
There was no treatment available to me at all. Because what do you do when someone doesn’t have speech problems or paralysis? While some of my ability to form new memories started to come back over time, doctors told me that my recovery would plateau and that I should resign myself to staying at home and fill my days with television.
At first I was angry. And then, instead of simply accepting this fate, I decided to carve out my own recovery. I returned to The University of Queensland to finish a degree in science. This exercised my mind and strengthened the areas damaged by stroke. The only way to get better was to challenge myself, and for me, UQ was a safe environment. I knew it really well, and there were maps, signs, and friendly people to ask if I got lost.
I had to change the way I learnt: I stopped learning visually and I became more of a verbal learner, memorising new information by using rhymes and mnemonics or repeating it out loud. All those techniques that I had to come up with in the lecture theatre and library made my transition to the workplace that much easier.
It was because of this undergraduate science degree that I first met founder and former Director of the Queensland Brain Institute, Professor Perry Bartlett. Part way through my studies I was invited to join the Bright Minds program at UQ, and as a component of this you needed to find a mentor. I had a good look around and discovered QBI. I emailed Professor Perry Bartlett who was the Director at the time and he offered to meet with me; I’ve been with him ever since. He took me under his wing when I was an undergraduate student and helped cultivate my passion for research. Now, as a post-doctoral researcher in his laboratory I have the great thrill of discovering new ways of helping the brain to heal itself.
I moved into this line of work, studying the brain, because I want to help people who have likewise been affected. There’s definitely a sense of survivor’s guilt: I have recovered so well compared to many other stroke survivors. It’s an area in which I felt I could create the greatest impact in my work; in a sense, by studying stroke I feel like I’ve become the master of it rather than the other way around.
It goes without saying that I have become a strong advocate for stroke research. I guess to a point it’s a mixture of my survivor’s guilt and the duty I have to other stroke survivors. I think that the development of future stroke treatments with the greatest potential to improve recovery will be grounded in the sort of fundamental scientific research that we are doing. I have no doubt that investment in research will improve recovery after stroke for other people like me.
I wouldn’t be as well as I am if I hadn’t come back to UQ – it was all of those challenges that helped me recover. I owe it to my future self, if I have another stroke, and to other 470,000 stroke survivors currently living in Australia, to do all that I can to improve recovery outcomes after stroke – a too-common experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
Women Love Tech would like to thank Dr Lavina Codd for this story.