Sammie Roden was in the middle of what should have been one of the happiest chapters of her life.
With a wedding in Barbados only four weeks away, she was supposed to be dreaming of white sandy beaches and a romantic day to remember.
But all the excitement came to an abrupt halt when she went to bed one night.
Sammie can’t remember any more than the fact she’d been complaining of a headache.
And yet within 24 hours, doctors were telling her she’d suffered a stroke and might never recover the full use of her left arm. She was 28.
‘At first I thought I’d been lying on my side too much during the night because my arm had gone dead,’ says Sammie.
‘When I tried to get out of bed I couldn’t stand up and fell down. That’s when alarm bells started to ring.
‘It was horrible but I didn’t immediately think it was a stroke.’
Instead Sammie booked an appointment to see her doctor for later that day – but when she got there she was soon sent off to Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital for an MRI scan and tests.
‘I was frightened anyway but you suddenly realise how serious it is,’ she adds. ‘They said “We think you’ve had a mini stroke”. The blood clot was small enough that it had burst itself but they didn’t know how much damage it had caused and they didn’t know if I’d have another one.
‘That was the only point I started to feel scared. It took me a couple of days to think “If that’s going to happen, I can’t stop it”.
‘I knew I had to look forward and be positive.’
For Sammie, the stroke was the latest in a long line of health problems that had blighted her life since childhood. At 14 she’d had her thyroid gland removed and the autoimmune condition antiphospholid syndrome (APS) had been diagnosed when she was 20. Sufferers of APS produce antibodies that attack normal cells within the body and strokes and haemorrhages are a known risk.
At the time of the stroke, Sammie was employed as a theatre support worker at QA, but the paralysis she’d suffered in her left arm meant she was no longer able to do the job she loved.
And her exotic wedding plans with husband Dave also had to be shelved, with the couple tying the knot in a simple register office service a few weeks later than planned.
For Sammie, from Hilsea, Portsmouth, the next six months were spent focused on recovering the use of her arm. As well as regular physiotherapy sessions she spent every moment she could exercising her motionless arm in the swimming pool.
‘At the beginning they’d put pins in my arm and did tests to see how quickly they could turn things around,’ explains Sammie, now 34.
‘The consultant had said I might never get the full use of this arm back but he told me there had been people who’d done that. As soon as he said that I was determined to be one of the few.
‘Even though I’m right-handed I use my left hand for lots of things. Getting dressed was a huge issue but you just adapt. I was getting in the pool whenever I could and just trying to move the arm.
‘I was in town one day when I thought I could feel my fingers tingling for the first time since it happened.
‘By the time I went to bed that evening I was pretty confident it was a genuine sensation.’
At first Sammie only had feeling in her fingers but the rest of the arm did gradually start to come back. She laughs as she reveals she broke a lot of cups and plates during that time, as day-by-day she’d tried to do more with her not-yet fully-recovered arm.
‘It was really weird but for me just knowing there was movement was important. It didn’t matter to what degree I could get it all back. Just feeling more like me quickly gave me back some control.
‘My arm’s pretty good now but what it really made me realise was that there’s more to life than being poorly.
‘It was a real turning point. I really started to focus on what I wanted. Obviously I just don’t know if it will ever happen again, they say the chances are slim and I don’t think about it.’
Another turning point came for Sammie when she had a hysterectomy three years ago. She and Dave had been trying for a baby but her ongoing struggle with APS meant she was haemorrhaging three weeks out of four.
Her quality of life was so poor that she was advised a hysterectomy would be the best course of action, even though it would rob her of her chance to have a child.
‘About two or three days after the hysterectomy I just thought “Is this ever going to get any better or easier?”.’ remembers Sammie.
‘But I think that was another turning point. I said to myself “Okay, I’ve had this option taken away but I’ve got to make the most of my life and our lives together”.
‘It was devastating at the time but now I can look at it a bit more rationally and realise I did make the right choice.’
In need of a focus and with a new-found desire to grab the most out of life, Sammie threw herself into charity events such as sponsored swims and the Race for Life.
She was delighted to find out she’d been nominated as a torchbearer for the London 2012 Olympic Games and proudly ran through the streets of Petworth with the cheers from the crowd ringing in her ears.
Kind-hearted Sammie was one of those who bought her torch – but she promptly donated it to the Akash restaurant in Southsea’s Albert Road so that many more people could see and enjoy it. Customers have already raised more than £200 for the St Thomas’ Lupus Trust by paying to have their picture taken with the torch.
And it was Sammie’s own experience of losing the use of her arm that prompted her to volunteer to become an ambassador for the forthcoming Paralympic Games.
From September 3 she’ll proudly take her place at Gatwick to welcome competitors and visitors to London.
‘I’m really excited,’ says Sammie. ‘Everybody coming through Gatwick will see us and we’ll be their information point. I know that I can help people.
‘I didn’t want to be a volunteer for the Olympics, I wanted it to be the Paralympics because I can relate to it because of my own experience of losing my arm.’
She’s full of admiration for the Paralympians who will put their hearts and souls into competing at the Games and hopes the UK will get behind the event in the same way they did for the Olympics.
As a passionate cheerleader for the Paralympics, she wants to show others that health problems can be overcome: ‘I’ve probably done far more now than I would have done if I was healthy,’ she adds.
‘I’ve got involved in so many charity events. Especially after my stroke I realised that there are so many people worse off.
‘You can sit and feel sorry for yourself or you can push yourself.’
As if Sammie Roden didn’t already have enough health issues to last her a lifetime, she was also diagnosed with Lupus in 2011.
The autoimmune condition is a bit like APS in that the body produces antibodies which turn against healthy cells.
But the difference with Lupus is that it also causes joint pain, fatigue and skin rashes.
When Sammie was diagnosed she realised she was overweight and knew that was putting added pressure on her already stiff and achy joints.
So she put her reservations about weight loss clubs to one side and joined her local Slimming World group in January 2012.
Since then she’s gone on to lose more than two-and-a-half stone and has now become a consultant, with her first group session taking place tonight.
She’s still got more weight to lose but she’s confident that she’ll get there by swapping comfort food for more fruit and vegetables.
‘I’m really hoping that I can encourage everybody who has felt like me to realise that they can do it,’ adds Sammie.
‘No-one is going to judge you.’
Sammie’s group will meet every Tuesday at 7.30pm at St Saviour’s Church in Jervis Road, Stamshaw, Portsmouth.