Longford man Michael Carroll knows all too well what happens during a stroke. Ten years ago he was getting ready for bed when he noticed his left arm had gone limp.
“At the time I didn’t know much about what was happening. My partner noticed my leg was also limp and the side of my face had dropped. She had first aid training so she knew to call the doctor.”
Michael’s stroke happened before the FAST public health campaign aired in 2009 on television, radio and other media.
FAST stands for Face, Arms, Speech and Time. The campaign taught people to recognise the signs of a stroke and to get the patient to hospital as fast as possible.
Timely care in stroke patients can prevent permanent loss of speech, eyesight and the use of limbs.
But the FAST campaign ended in 2011 and has not aired since. Now the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) and the National Stroke Programme have called for it to be brought back urgently as its message has been lost.
“Before the campaign only 40% of people claimed they could recognise the signs of stroke, but this shot up to over 70% immediately after the campaign,” says Professor Rónán Collins, clinical lead for the National Stroke Programme and a geriatrician at Tallaght University Hospital.
Since the campaign ended, he says, awareness has fallen back. “Fewer than 50% of patients are getting to hospital within the really effective time period of three hours.”
Head of Advocacy at the IHF Chris Macey says this works out at up to 5,000 patients a year who are not getting to hospital on time to receive thrombolysis or thrombectomy.
Professor Collins explains that thrombolysis is a clot-busting treatment that is akin to “pouring Domestos down the drain, and the newer thrombectomy is like putting the Dyno-Rod down to retrieve the clot. There is great treatment available in Ireland but we can’t do anything if people don’t get to hospital on time.”
After four weeks in hospital and months of physiotherapy Michael Carroll regained the use of his left side, his speech and short-term memory. But two years ago he again felt the signs of stroke.
“The left side went again and I lost my swallow which was frightening. This time my partner had seen the FAST ad on television and knew what was happening to me.”
Michael quickly arrived in A&E and received thrombectomy treatment for a functional neurological disorder which has the same symptoms as stroke.
Michael attends a stroke recovery group in Longford, set up by the IHF. “We do exercises and socialise with others. This helps with your mental well-being. Stroke is a very hard thing to go through,” he says.
Though his short-term memory remains poor and he has no sensation in the bottom half of his left leg.
Paul Haughey, also a member of the Longford stroke recovery group, lost his livelihood as an electrical engineer and his ability to drive. “It was part of my identity, part of who I was and now I’m not sure who I am,” he says.
Patricia Hanley, who suffered a stroke during the night last year, lost her walk and the use of one hand. She says what she finds hard is that people have to hand her everything.
Bernie Quinn had a stroke at age 24 while group volunteer Pat lost the sight in one eye. “They told me that if I had got to hospital quicker my eye could have been saved,” he says.
All the group members want to see the FAST campaign re-introduced. “It got the message over so well,” says Michael. “It showed a little burning spot in a person’s head. The longer it took to get treatment the more damage was done to the brain.”
The IHF, which fronted the original FAST campaign with the help of philanthropist Chuck Feeney, says it’s time to get it back on TV, radio, newspapers and on social media.
“We have submitted a proposal to the Department of Health and HSE for a new updated campaign and are waiting to hear back,” Chris Macey told RTÉ’s This Week.