Striking back after a stroke at 31

By Morgan Dyer

Fiona Kleinitz was 31 and her future and her dreams seemed lost forever.

The young Shepparton woman, on holiday in Adelaide, had failed to recognise she was having a stroke — and by the time she received medical help, much of the damage was irreversible.

Fiona said she had ignored all the warning signs, because — like many people — she could never imagine someone her age becoming the victim of a stroke.

And she was wrong, almost dead wrong.

As the stroke shut her down, then cut her down, Fiona was already losing about 1.9 million brain cells per minute.

Her left side was hardest hit and Fiona has mostly lost use of it — for good.

Fiona said if she'd ever thought about strokes, she thought ``they could only happen to older people”.

“I was going to a show with my partner and before we got there half my face had dropped,” she said.

“We arrived and I went to the bathroom and struggled to do my pants up — it was weird, but I said I was still fine.

“I walked up to the stands and then I got a hard and really heavy migraine, my left leg stopped co-operating and my speech began to slur,” she said.

All this time her body was suffering constant and permanent damage.

Fiona had not only had a stroke, she had become a statistic. About 20 of the Australians impacted by stroke every day are under the age of 65; and 88 per cent of young stroke survivors report unmet needs across health, everyday living, leisure, employment and finance aspects of their lives.

“It was really hard to think what my life would look like,” Fiona said.

“I had things to do and people to see.

“But suddenly I was completely dependent on everyone and everything.”

From pureed food to having people shower her, Fiona slowly began to recover and learnt how to walk again.

“At the time I was the youngest person in rehab, which was very isolating,” she said.

Fiona was lucky enough to have incredible support back home — including her employer, who helped Fiona return to work after a lengthy period of time off.

Although her bubbly personality masks her pain, Fiona continues to struggle from the impact of her stroke.

Now 48, this stroke survivor has been forced to learn, and accept, living a new kind of normal.

But she still counts herself lucky; lucky to be able to walk, drive and work.

Don’t think, however, that 17 years and all that rehab means life is easy. Because it isn’t.

“After a stroke many people suffer from neurofatigue, which means my brain is working in overdrive to get my body moving,” Fiona said.

“I get very tired very quickly, which also leads to emotional issues and heightened anxiety — just to stand up I have to be thinking and focusing.

“You have to learn strategies to manage and control things the best you can.

“It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time,” Fiona said.

This month the National Stroke Foundation has launched a new project to help people like Fiona get the services they need to better recover from a stroke.

The Stroke Foundation's StrokeConnect national manager Jude Czerenkowski said Young Stroke, funded by the National Disability Insurance Agency, would empower younger stroke survivors to live well.

“There is currently very little age-appropriate information available for younger stroke survivors, which leads people to believe solutions don’t exist, support isn’t available and ‘this is just life for me now’,” she said.

Ms Czerenkowski urged people with lived experience of stroke, like Fiona, to get involved in The Stroke Foundation's Young Stroke Project.

“This project could be a game-changer for young stroke survivors, but we definitely need as many people as possible to get involved,” she said.

“Recovery can be emotionally and physically challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. Sharing experiences and hearing about what really works can help you get where it is you want to be.”

Information on Stroke Foundation's Young Stroke Project can be accessed from the stroke recovery website or you can phone StrokeLine on 1800 787 653.