The last thing that 32-year-old Jimmy Phiri expected when he felt physical weakness, was to be diagnosed as having had a stroke.
Jimmy Phiri remembers the 29th of September 2015 very well. "It was a Monday," he reflects. He was 32-years old at the time. "I felt fine. I'd had a weekend out and about and drove to work as usual that morning. Everything was normal. I had not a single warning sign of what was to come." Jimmy - who worked in Human Resources - left work early that day and headed home to his 2nd floor flat in Johannesburg.
"I got home around 15h30 and took a shower and, as I reached up for a towel with my left hand, it fell right through my fingers." Alarmed, Jimmy tried to pick the towel up off the floor and felt his energy drain. "I then fell. I was in the shower and I was very scared. I managed to get up and walk to the bedroom and phone a friend," he adds. "I could feel my heart and legs were getting very weak. I went to grab some ice to see if he could feel the cold on my hand and was comforted when I realized I could." He was only able to get to Jimmy two hours later and took him to the Netcare Olivedale Hospital where tests showed Jimmy had suffered a stroke.
"I was in extreme shock. I couldn’t understand it and thought I am too young for this. You think that this affects older people. I had had no symptoms."
The slow journey to recovery
Without any inkling of what was to come, Jimmy was gripped by fear. The stroke affected his left hand and leg. "I could not hold things and not even walk and so was confined to a wheelchair." Tests run at the hospital showed that Jimmy suffers from a blood disorder called autoimmune haemolytic disease in which red blood cells are destroyed more rapidly than the rate at which they are produced. He also had anaemia and a history of hyperlipidaemia (an abnormally high concentration of cholesterol or triglycerides in the blood).
Three weeks after his admission, he was transferred to the Life Flora Clinic to see a specialist who could treat his autoimmune condition with plasma dialysis for 14 days. "That went very well and I was discharged to the Life Riverfield Lodge rehabilitation centre in mid-November where I spent a month in rehab." Jimmy had come a long way but his healing process had only just begun.
"I remember worrying that, due to the amount of time for which I was in hospital, that I would not have full cover from the Discovery Medical scheme for my care. I was so relieved when they covered 85 % of my bills," adds Jimmy. "Letting go of financial stress was critical to my recovery and I knew that I could access all the treatment I needed, some of which cost thousands of rands and later go into a rehabilitation facility. I would have never managed without my medical aid."
Occupational Therapy restores Jimmy's range of motion
In May 2016, he was referred to RehabMatters in Rivonia where he saw Occupational Therapist Ashley Scott. "Jimmy is very young to have had a stroke," says Scott. "We generally see the majority of strokes in people over the age of 50." Scott and her team immediately set about working to strengthen Jimmy's left arm and wrist extension to allow him to do everyday things like washing himself and getting dressed. "Jimmy was also keen to get back to work and we spent time teaching him to manage his fatigue and on cognitive therapy," explains Scott.
A brave Jimmy pushes for independence
"Having a stroke is a horrible experience," shares Jimmy. "It cuts directly into your life and changes everything. Thank God, the right side of my body and face and speech were not affected," he explains. "I put in a lot of hard work to strengthen my left leg. I went from being wheelchair bound to using a walker and when discharged in mid-December I could manage quite well on my own. An aunt stayed with Jimmy for the first two months to assist him in every way as he regained his independence. Jimmy had made good functional improvement during his rehabilitation but still had increased tone and spasticity in his left side. Yet his balance had improved and he could engage in daily living activities, only requiring moderate assistance. His speech improved but still had mild complex memory difficulties. He was unable to return to work at that stage and continued with outpatient physiotherapy, occupational and speech therapy.
Jimmy was a very active person. "I played soccer. Now I watch soccer. I use to run but now go for walks of around eight to ten kilometres twice a week." Jimmy follows a home-based rehab routine on Mondays and Wednesdays and walks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His left leg is fine, but his hand has been slower in recovering.
In January 2016 Jimmy returned to work for two weeks but was then put onto temporary disability leave. "A year-and-half post stroke, we are at the stage where we are asking whether Jimmy will be able to go back to work in his full capacity, in a different role or require permanent disability," explains Scott. "We are considering doing a work-hardening programme for Jimmy in which we give him two to three weeks of work, through simulated work tasks at our practice, to see how he would cope with his work environment."
Jimmy has meanwhile bought an automatic car to get around. However, an off-road driving assessment done by Scott and her team found that while Jimmy was capable of one-handed steering, his attention span and shift, and visual-spatial perception were not adequate. Jimmy is not yet able to drive.
A young person's reflection on stroke
Jimmy's ordeal has wizened the 34-year-old. "You are never prepared for a stroke," he says. "The only way to prevent it is to go for regular check-ups and ensure that the risk factors are under control."
Jimmy's advice to anyone dealing with this sort of illness is to win the battle that takes place in the mind. "The key to dealing with a stroke is to remain positive and focused," he explains. "I have a very strong Christian background and pray all the time and always believe I will one day be well again.” With this attitude to life, this young man has already come a long way.