Lansley: 'My stroke could have paralysed me'

Andrew Lansley 'I was shocked by the randomness of it all'

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Today is World Stroke Day. My stroke day came a long time ago.

I was playing cricket, eighteen years ago. I was in the outfield, went down to pick up a ball, threw it back, and then found it hard not to veer off to the left.

Within half an hour, I couldn't stand up.

Within an hour, I'm in an ambulance.

Start Quote

Had blood been denied to a different area of the brain I could have been paralysed or worse”

End Quote Andrew Lansley Health Secretary

I was 35 years old, apparently fit and healthy.

The next day, the hospital discharged me, saying I had suffered an inner ear infection. I hadn't; I didn't even have a raised temperature.

It took a fortnight to argue that no diagnosis fitted my symptoms, so I was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan (not so common in those days), which showed I had had a stroke.

I was lucky. The stroke only affected part of my cerebellum; I lost "fine balance". A problem for skiing or for tightrope walking, but not for daily life.

Why did it happen? A tear inside the inner wall of an artery in my neck. Uncommon, not unknown, but with no real explanation.

When I stood up rapidly, a clot had been dislodged and that travelled to block a blood vessel in my brain.

I remember being shocked by the randomness of it all: had blood been denied to a different area of the brain I could have been paralysed or worse.

That it was only by chance that the net result was losing my balance was a sobering thought.

I was referred to Charing Cross Hospital and put on warfarin for three months while the artery repaired itself.

Following an angiogram they had a research project drawing patients from across the country. Apparently this very particular kind of stroke is like lightning, ie it never strikes twice. And indeed it hasn't.

'It wasn't about politics'

Ten years on and I volunteered to chair the All-Party-Parliamentary Group on Stroke and learned that in other countries, the response to stroke was more effective.

The evidence showed that with rapid follow-up to minor strokes, better access to drugs, surgery and therapy, we could cut death and disability from stroke and save money for the NHS and care services.

Stroke specialists led the way and with the Department of Health on board, things got moving. It wasn't about politics, just patients.

Since then, real progress has been made, but we have more to do. The Face, Arm, Speech Time, (FAST) Test, launched in February under the last government, is widely recognised in prompting a '999' call. Thrombolysis (clot-busting drug treatment) for stroke is rolling out across the country. Minor strokes get rapid follow up much more often.

Most patients are cared for in a specialised unit, but not all; and there are still deficiencies in care.

But the evidence shows more can be done, with better access to scans and more intensive early therapies like physiotherapy in hospital and the community.

Quality standards for stroke care were published in June by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). More specialist stroke doctors are being trained and there is more support for initiatives to allow people to live independently.

Stroke is like a "brain attack". Risk can be reduced by exercising, not smoking, eating well, cutting down on salt intake and not ignoring high blood pressure.

We know that if the NHS delivered care as good as the European average, we could save 4,000 lives a year; 9,000 lives a year if we matched the best in Europe.

Most important of all, though, is for us all to be more aware of stroke. What it is. How we can prevent it. How we can recognise it. How we can treat it. How we can recover from it.

Stroke is not something that just happens to older people, nor something which, once it has damaged your brain, we can do nothing about.

I was lucky; but every year 35,000 are not and they die from stroke. About the same number of people are left with severe disability.

Together with the community of doctors, nurses, therapists and carers who care for stroke survivors, I am determined that we will look after them, better and better, in the future.

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