Stroke warrior’s positive message

By John Lewis

Brooke Parsons is someone who crackles with positive energy like a lightning rod for anyone around her.

“At times I feel like my heart is floating, my heart beats really fast. In my eyes I just do what I have to do to get through, but just maybe if we knew what other people were thinking we would all deserve a standing ovation,” she wrote in her speech notes for yesterday's Shepparton Access annual International Day of People With a Disability celebration breakfast.

In the end, Brooke threw away her speech notes and talked from the heart yesterday morning to about 80 invited Access supporters at Mooroopna's Bill and Beats cafe restaurant.

For someone who has had to learn to speak not once, but three times in her life, Brooke's 45-minute talk was both a miracle and a celebration of the invincibility of the human spirit.

Brooke was a 13-year-old flute-playing, happy-go-lucky "pain-in-the-butt" schoolgirl when she suffered a stroke.

She was talking on the phone and was about to hang up when she lost control of the right side of her body and fell through the double glass doors of her kitchen and couldn't get up.

Because of the angle of her fall, she wasn't cut. But when her mother found her she couldn't talk, and she couldn't get up.

In an instant, her life had changed forever.

“I was a baby again,” she said.

She had to learn to walk, talk, feed herself and go to the toilet all over again.

Over the past 26 years she has had 86 operations, and countless intensive physiotherapy sessions and injections to correct her tendon transfers in her arms and legs.

Last year she was once more rushed into hospital and placed in a coma for two weeks when doctors discovered an abscess in her throat. When she woke up, again she couldn't talk.

“When I was 13 years old all I wanted was to walk again. But last year all I could think about was — will I talk again? It would be a very quiet place if I couldn't talk,” she said to a ripple of laughter from her audience yesterday.

She said after her collapse last year, doctors again warned her she faced a massive recovery job ahead.

“I said I've got the strength to do it. I've got four nephews, two nieces, I've got brothers and parents who love me — I need to live. There's so much more for me to do."

Now 40, Brooke lives daily with mitral heart prolapse, polycystic ovarian syndrome, hypoglycaemia and acquired brain injury.

Somehow, she has managed to complete a double degree in social work and public relations, gain an advanced diploma in counselling, a Certificate III in Education specialising in students with a disability, become a Stroke Foundation Ambassador and peer support leader, and find work as a patient service officer and medical receptionist.

She has also found, and lost, love.

A few years ago she met Liam, a cystic fibrosis sufferer. They spent five years together before he succumbed to the disease. Brooke went to a professional hair and make-up artist and then, as he lay dying, held Liam's hand.

“His last words were ‘you really are beautiful'. He got to leave this world with this image of me all done up and looking special — apart from the mascara running down my face,” she said.

Even here, Brooke crackles with positivity.

“How lucky was I to be loved?"

Her inspirational story has introduced her to celebrities including the cast of American sitcom The Nanny, film star Tom Cruise and Dr Hunter Doherty — the real Patch Adams whose life was turned into a film starring Robin Williams.

Through it all, Brooke remains grateful for the chances she has been given to start her life again.

She doesn't call herself a stroke survivor, she says she is a stroke warrior.

The label suits her.

“I can now say, look out — because here I come. I'm marching to the beat of my own drum and I am definitely not scared to be seen.

“We're not here for a long time, we're here for a short time. So we've got make it something pretty special. And I think I've done that.”