Rewarding the fast thinkers who save lives



Like most parents, Karen Le Blanc had never heard of childhood stroke until it hit her own family completely out of the blue when her three-year-old daughter suffered a massive stroke last year.

“Clara was only three and two months when she had the stroke. Before it happened, I had never heard of a child having a stroke and I am a medical scientist who had been working in Temple Street Children’s Hospital for a long time.”

When Clara awoke in their Howth home on August 19th, 2012, her mother noticed that her face had dropped and quickly realised that her speech was slurred and incoherent.

Immediately recognising the symptoms of stroke that she had seen on the Irish Heart Foundation’s Act FAST television ads, Karen rushed her daughter to Temple Street.

She and her husband, David, were told their little girl had suffered a catastrophic stroke and, unknown to them, it was not her first stroke. Tests showed Clara had a stroke in May 2012 which went unrecognised as she had no symptoms.

As a result of the second stroke, she lost her speech and all movement down her right side. She was a talkative child who had a huge vocabulary for her age, so losing her speech was heart-breaking for the family. She spent five weeks in Temple Street hospital and three months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.

Chicken pox virus
“Clara had every test and procedure you can imagine and she rarely cried or complained. In fact, when she left Temple Street, one of the doctors bought her the book of the Disney movie Brave as she said it reminded her of Clara.”

It was eventually discovered Clara’s stroke had been caused by the chicken pox virus, which she had had four months previously. Happily, she has made a good recovery but has limited use of her right hand and a bad limp. She calls her hand and leg her “sleepy hand and leg” and is determined to wake them up. Just a year after her stroke, she started school in September with a special needs assistant for support and is coming on well.

Her mother was very proud when Clara calmly told a child who teased her in the playground for being slow that “when my sleepy hand and leg get better, I will be just as fast as you”.

“She is an inspiration. The only thing she complains about is that her smile is not like a princess’s any more as her mouth turns down. To me she is the most beautiful princess ever and truly deserving of this award.”

Clara will be presented with a Child of Courage award at today’s Annual Irish Heart Foundation Life After Stroke Awards. She is one of 11 stroke survivors who will receive awards at the event which is sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim and hosted byRTÉ broadcaster Marty Whelan in the Gibson Hotel.

The medical director of the IHF, Dr Angie Browne, says stroke in children is extremely rare but does occur from infancy, with the causes being slightly different than for adults.

The commonest cause of childhood stroke is a clot or embolism in the brain often coming from the heart due to congenital heart disease. Other causes include congenital malformations of the brain, trauma to the head, infections and blood disorders like sickle cell disease.
Couldn’t put his socks on
Esther Hourigan will be presented with the Act FAST Award for saving her husband, Stephen’s, life when he suffered a stroke in 2009 at the age of 31. Stephen, a garda, was putting his socks on one morning when he found he could not do it properly.

When he started slurring his words and slumped to one side on the bed, Esther, a qualified fitness instructor, knew straight away he was having a stroke. Again, she recognised his classic symptoms of stroke that she had seen on the IHF’s TV ads.

Her husband was rushed to Tralee General Hospital by ambulance but as his symptoms had passed and all his tests had come back clear, a stroke was ruled out. Esther was not happy and she insisted that he be taken to the Bons Secours in Tralee for an MRI. There they met cardiologist Dr Louis Keary – the second person Stephen credits with saving his life – who began treating him as soon as he got in the door.

“Dr Keary told us Stephen had had a minor stroke, he could even tell by the scarring on his brain that it had lasted about 8½ minutes. He said if Stephen had not been treated, he would have had another stroke in 24 hours which would probably have killed him.”

Further tests at the Bons identified a hole in his heart and a weak wall with which Stephen had been born and which meant he had been at a high risk of stroke all his life. He was admitted to the Bons on a Tuesday, operated on that Friday and was home on Saturday for his son’s second birthday.

Four years on, the father of three has made a full recovery. He is back working on full duties in Killarney, has returned to all previous activities such as indoor soccer and is dad to a new baby boy born four months ago.

By Michelle McDonagh

Published in The Irish Times, Health & Family, Tuesday December 3, 2013