Candice's Story - using my experiences to help others

By Candice Donner

On March 15 in 2015, I had a severe ischaemic stroke that paralysed the entire left side of my face and body.  I was 35.  

I had no typical risk factors for stroke but I had a large hole in my heart and deep vein thrombosis behind my left knee.  I had no symptoms of either until they combined to cause the stroke that day.  I got dizzy and fell over.  I was instantly and completely paralysed.  At the time I had no knowledge of strokes and didn’t understand the severity of my situation.  Immediately after the stroke I had difficulty swallowing, could not read, couldn’t sit up in a wheelchair, and was completely dependent on others for my day to day care.  I presented to Whakatane hospital where I received treatment to dissolve the clot preventing blood flow to my brain.  This treatment is usually fairly successful but it didn’t work for me, making my level of brain damage and subsequent physical disability extremely severe.   I was then transferred to the acute ward at Waikato while the stroke was threatening my life.

I then spent 4 months in Tauranga hospital as an inpatient and then 4 months after my discharge my ex-husband left and as suddenly as the stroke, I was a single, disabled mother.  My boys were 2 and 16, and we had to find a way to cope on our own.

In 2016 I completed a foundations course that was a bridging programme to tertiary study.  After graduation, I decided to undertake a Bachelor of Community Health to try to use my experiences in a way to help others.

Before I began my degree at the beginning of 2017, and just before my 2 year post-stroke anniversary, I had my first successful climb of Mauao.  I also tried unsuccessfully for the New Zealand para-cycling development squad.  That year I was runner-up in the adult learner awards for the Tauranga region.  2017 was the year I began to understand that my physical disability did not have to prevent me from living a full and satisfying life.  That first year of study had a large workload, I was trying to continue with my own rehabilitation and raise my two children alone.  We struggled financially, using food banks and student hardship services to get us by.  My family and friends were my amazing support network.

I climbed Papamoa Hills in 2018 and had my second climb of Mauao that year.

At the beginning of 2019, I completed my first 10km walk.  My mobility has always been a challenge for me, but I managed to cover the distance in about 4 hours.  I completed my degree at the end of 2019.  On my last day of study, a good friend and I did Shave For A Cure and raised over $1200 for a worthy cause.  I was already employed part-time by the end of the degree, working for an organisation I had completed my final work placement with.  I am still employed part-time at Ngā Kākano Family Health Services, a kaupapa Maori health organisation in Te Puke where I live, where I get to help people every day.

Over the years of my recovery, I have been involved both locally and globally in raising awareness of stroke, particularly in young people.  I share my journey on social media to encourage others who may be in a similar situation and to try to dispel the stigma attached to disability.  I have returned to the hospital ward, talked with other survivors and made some good friends within the New Zealand stroke community.  I am currently writing a book about my experiences to help others who may find themselves or their loved ones impacted by stroke.

I am now 5 and a half years post-stroke, and I have learned that my disability has not prevented me from achieving anything I have wanted to do.  I still live with limited mobility, balance issues and no function of my left arm.  There are no guarantees of how much I will recover, but I already live a full life.  My life is still hard work with many challenges, but being differently-abled has given me a more appreciative perspective of how precious my life is, and I am grateful for the entire journey to today.

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