I celebrated my 18th birthday - and then had a stroke

Ben Gray  Picture: Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust
Ben Gray Picture: Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust

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Yesterday was a special date for Ben Gray. He turned 20 – and marked the second anniversary of the frightening day when he suffered a stroke.

Just days after celebrating his 18th birthday, he was left paralysed and unable to speak. It was only the quick thinking of a group of clinicians that saved his life.

By the time they arrived, Ben’s face had dropped and I instantly knew what was wrong

Ben’s mum Deborah

Two years on and Ben is now able to walk and talk again and is volunteering as a garage mechanic two days a week.

‘A few days after Ben celebrated his 18th birthday, he was still nursing what we thought was a hangover,’ recalls mum Deborah.

‘After four days I took him to our GP, who referred Ben to the QA Hospital in Cosham for an ECG and an X-ray as she suspected Ben had an infection on his kidney as well as a blood clot in his heart.’

Ben, who lives in Locks Heath, was given a blood-thinning infusion as he was at high risk of the clot leaving his heart and causing a stroke, or blocking important arteries elsewhere in his body.

Despite this, whilst sat on the ward talking to his best friend Jack and his mum, Ben’s life changed forever.

‘One minute he was walking around the ward trying to get his TV working and the next thing he was having a stroke,’ says Deborah.

‘It was 4pm so he said he’d see me out and just as he went to stand his body froze. It was like he was paralysed in a freeze-frame.

‘I asked if he was okay, but he didn’t speak or move. His face had no expression and he just looked lost.

‘I screamed out to the nurses and they were by our side within seconds. But by the time they arrived, Ben’s face had dropped and I instantly knew what was wrong.

‘My 18-year-old son, who had celebrated his birthday only a few days before, was having a stroke.’

A blood clot can block a blood vessel, which in turn starves part of the brain of oxygen and can cause symptoms such as paralysis and loss of speech.

One had lodged in the major artery that supplied the left side of Ben’s brain.

Deborah says Ben was on a four-bed ward and had made friends with the other patients.

‘Everyone on the ward was upset, with some crying, and the nurses pulled a curtain around Ben as they worked on him.

‘Jack and I were ushered to a family room and we all sat in silence, stunned at what had just happened.’

Within the hour Ben’s family had come to the QA and he was transferred to a ward that specialised in stroke patients.

Deborah says Ben couldn’t move his right side or speak.

‘We were all in the family room when Dr Peter Howard, a stroke specialist, approached and talked us through our options.

‘He said that because Ben’s blood clot was so large they couldn’t administer thrombolysis, which is an injection of medication that dissolves blood clots and restores the flow of blood to the brain.’

Dr Howard says Ben’s blood clot broke into pieces and travelled to his brain, which caused the stroke.

‘Around 40 per cent of strokes are caused this way. But that’s 40 per cent of older people.

‘Because Ben was so young I was worried as there is less capacity in the brain for younger people and a stroke causes the brain to swell, so this could have been very damaging for Ben.

‘I phoned Southampton General Hospital, as they’re the neuro specialists, and asked if Ben could have surgery on his head to relieve the pressure on his brain.

‘It was 6.30pm on a Saturday over a bank holiday weekend, but despite that the doctors were fantastic in ringing around staff and pulling them in from their days off.

‘Southampton then phoned me back and said they could offer another solution and remove the blood clot through Ben’s groin.’

The procedure would involve passing a tube through the groin and up to the brain, where the wire would pass through the clot, enabling the surgeon to pull the clot out from the groin.

Dr Howard then gave Deborah three options; she could either leave Ben as he was, which would mean he would be left profoundly disabled, remove part of his skull to relieve pressure, or they could allow the surgeons to attempt to pull the clot out through his groin.

Deborah says seeing Ben go from laughing and smiling in the bed to suddenly being locked in his own body is a memory she will never forget.

‘After Dr Howard gave us our options I looked at Ben and thought there was no way I could leave him as he was, as he would have hated that. I knew he understood what we were saying as every time I spoke to him I asked him to squeeze my hand to see if he could understand.

‘Although his body seemed lifeless, every so often he would squeeze my hand as I spoke, so with a heavy heart I told the doctors to do what was needed to try to get my son back.’

Ben was placed into a semi-coma and travelled the 21 miles to Southampton General.

Deborah says the sight of Ben as he travelled by ambulance was a vision she would never like to see again.

‘He looked incredibly tiny as he laid amongst the many machines, batteries and monitors that surrounded him.’

A team was assembled at Southampton General and Ben was taken to neuro-angiography.

Dr Jason Macdonald, consultant neuroradiologist, explains: ‘I passed a catheter from the artery in Ben’s right groin up into the carotid artery in the left side of his neck.

‘I was able to pass through the clot with a very fine wire and catheter and carefully remove the clot with a stent device. This was repeated twice more to clear the major arteries and at the end of the procedure the blocked artery was wide open with a good flow, which we were delighted about.’

Ben was woken the following morning and a CT scan confirmed he had endured two small strokes

‘At 10am the next morning we arrived to the sight of Ben conscious in bed and were ecstatic when he spoke to us,’ says Deborah.

‘The doctors advised us to keep Ben talking, so topics passed through our lips as quick as items on a supermarket conveyor belt!’

Deborah says Ben was confused and in a bit of a daze when he woke and he couldn’t remember what had happened.

‘The doctor held up two fingers as a peace sign and asked Ben how many fingers he was holding up. We all erupted into laughter when Ben held up the same number of fingers as the doctor, only his fingers did not resemble the peace sign.

‘They said we would get our son back and they were right – he had got his sense of humour back all right’

Four days later, Ben returned to the QA and says he was greeted back like family when the many nurses that remembered him continued to visit.

‘It was all very bizarre,’ says Ben.

‘The last thing I could remember was walking around the ward trying to sort out my TV after they said I had a blood clot on my heart.

‘So to be told I’d had a stroke, I wasn’t even sure what it was.

‘I just thought it was something that old people get.

‘Although it was four days later, I still couldn’t move my body properly,’ continues Ben.

‘I was lying flat and not having control of my body was really scary.

‘It was all a bit of a daze and, despite my mum telling me what had happened, I just couldn’t get my head around it.’

Ben remained in hospital for six weeks, where he had to gradually learn to move around again.

‘Standing up the first time was the hardest.

‘It took me seven days of attempting it before I finally cracked it.

‘Every time I tried I just felt sick and dizzy and my body would feel the weight of 100 bricks.’

Deborah says that Ben remained upbeat and she’s proud of how hard he has worked to rebuild his life again.

He recalls: ‘When I first went home from hospital, I was frustrated at how much my life had changed.

‘I couldn’t go to college or do my apprenticeship as a mechanic in a garage. I had cracked standing and walking. but relied heavily on my wheelchair.

‘I still didn’t have the use of my right hand, so even simple things like playing computer games were an issue.’

Ben has now been out of hospital for two years and volunteers at the garage two days a week as he eases himself back into work and learns to live without the use of one of his hands.

‘I can’t thank the doctors enough – especially the ones that came in on their day off. If they hadn’t have done that, then I wouldn’t be here now.’

Ben adds: ‘I am now in a place where I can cut up some of my food, which is a huge achievement for me.

‘I want to share my story so that people my age learn the symptoms of a stroke.

‘It’s important that everyone learns the warning signs so they can prevent anyone from being left profoundly disabled by leaving the person too long before receiving treatment.’