Matt Henson: The stroke recovery

Matt on bike

I am the bloke that had the stroke on the East Garston fun run in December 2013 (see here for what happened). But that was just the beginning – the stroke recovery process is the important part of the story.

Matt being shaved
It was strange to be shaved by my father

The hardest thing about a stroke is obviously the disability that it causes. I lost all feeling and movement in the right hand side of my body, I could not speak for the first two weeks as the left-hand side of the brain is responsible for speech and the swelling had impacted speech areas. The first thing to come to terms with is basic problems like eating and hygiene. When one side of your mouth stops working you don’t know there is food in there and so you don’t know when to swallow, whether it is full of food or not and indeed if it is too hot. Then you discover that there’s no way to butter toast one-handed (try it) and just try cleaning your teeth or shaving with the other hand (not your writing hand) – it is surprisingly hard.

And then you experience some very peculiar things, for example the body knows that the muscles are not being used and so it makes you stretch a lot. Stretching is an action controlled by the brain stem and not the brain and so suddenly your motionless arm unconsciously stretches into the air but as soon as you consciously realise what has happened it collapses and won’t move again.


After two weeks at John Radcliffe I was transferred into a rehab ward at Thatcham Community Hospital. Physical rehabilitation is a slow process. In my stroke the areas which control motion and feeling were not damaged but what is effectively the big cable known as the internal capsule which links the thinking bits to the muscles was destroyed. Amazingly though other areas of the brain can assume the functions of the damaged bits (this is called neuroplasticity). Our ability to mend our brains decreases as we get older, but even in old people there is still some capacity to improve. The aim of rehab is to re-engage the link between the brain and the muscles. This involves specialist physiotherapy where they try and isolate each individual muscle and then make you exercise that muscle until you can control it again. It is bit like Pilates and very hard work for two hours a day but the changes, however small, do happen quite quickly.

Matt's foot with biro mark
The physio used a biro to stimulate the small muscles in my foot.

Over time you start with the big muscles which allow you to stand up and then work on the smaller muscles which allow you to balance and gain finer control. Not only do you lose muscle strength but also the coordination between muscles, so for example moving your arm requires many muscles to work in coordination but if this coordination is lost you get very jerky or uncontrolled movement.

It is amazing just how many muscles control the movements we take for granted. For example walking not only requires all the muscles of your back, hips and legs but also the tiny muscles between your toes that allow us to roll on our feet.

Power of the Imagination

In the first two months when nothing really worked the physio taught my wife Rachel to bend different joints such as my fingers, wrists and ankles and I would close my eyes and imagine it was me moving my finger not Rachel. This process of imagination has an amazing effect on the brain and helps it to establish the link to the muscles again. You also feel the sense of touch developing again; this starts off as hot and cold, then pressure and eventually texture. Three of my fingers can now sense texture but my forefinger and thumb still only feel pressure, but that is better than no sense as you forget to keep hold of things when you can’t feel them. Very frustrating when you look behind you and see you have dropped whatever it was that you were holding!

One of the depressing aspects about any brain injury is fatigue. This can be tiredness or what feels like muscle fatigue and one of the things you need to come to terms with. It has been six months since the stroke and I still have to go to bed at 9 o’clock – however in the first two months I probably spent 12 to 16 hours a day asleep.

Matt's open hand
The first time I managed to open my hand.

I have been very lucky to have remained emotionally positive through my stroke experience; many people get terribly depressed which prevents them to engaging in the therapy required to get better.My goal was to always celebrate changes however small; I can still remember how amazing it felt when I could open my hand for the time. I could only do it twice at first, but it was such a profound change it gave me hope.

Returning to normal life

On 21 February 2014 I was very grateful to be discharged back home. We had to get a bed downstairs and I needed family around me most of the time. After two weeks I was fed up of camping downstairs so against doctors orders I moved upstairs to sleep with my wife.

Breaking the rules
Breaking the rules

I also decided to get on my bike and posted this picture on Facebook which infuriated my occupational therapist as I had been forbidden from cycling. But I had treated myself to a new racing bike just before my stroke and I was determined to get on it.

The next big challenge was to be able to drive again and go to work. Driving is an interesting one; you are not allowed to drive in the first month after any kind of stroke including a mini stroke or TIA (longer if you are a commercial driver) and then only return if your GP and/or consultant agree that you are safe. There is a wonderful organisation called the RDAC who can test you to make sure you are safe and work with you to overcome any disabilities that may prevent you from driving a normal car. They helped my confidence hugely when they felt my driving was good enough for me to return to the road. Of course you have to tell your insurance company but they cannot increase your premiums or stop you from driving provided the DVLA do not withdraw your license

Matt rock climbingI returned to work in April on a half time basis.  Needless to say I had to defer my place in the April 2014 London Marathon  but I made sure that same week I returned to my passion of rock climbing thanks to the help of my climbing friends in Swindon ??.

By the end of May I was back at work full time and six months after the stroke life is nearly normal. I can’t run yet and when I can, I won’t be trying to chase Andrew James up a hill but I can cycle 10 miles and be a normal husband and father. It has been an interesting experience and whilst I would not have chosen it, I have valued it.

I have to some extent been very lucky: I still have the same personality, I still have all my memories and only a small impact on short term memory. I can speak, read and type again (although for long text I use Voice Recognition Software and I can’t write with a pen yet). I can walk nearly a mile, ride a bike, rock climb and I’m nearly running but the muscles that control my foot are still weak.

Others are not so lucky but the most important thing is to stay positive and celebrate every change for better however small. Time is a great healer and with hard work and a lot of support from family and friends you can get better, perhaps not 100% but certainly better. The challenge as I get closer to being ‘normal’ again is that I get frustrated by not being able to function like I did before the stroke. Now I can walk perfectly well it is annoying not being able to run. And as I don’t have the complete feeling back in my right hand yet I can’t do the finer type of woodworking jobs that I used to be able to do very well. So I still need to learn to be patient, stay positive and remember that I nearly died.

Click here for Matt’s progress four years after his stroke.

What You Can Do

Please learn to recognise the symptoms of a stroke from NHS Stroke – Act FAST website so you know when to act quickly. If a friend or relative has a stroke, you have to get them to A&E as fast as you can Then do whatever you can to keep them positive, help them with the therapy they need and keep disabled limbs moving to try and prevent spasticity seizing them up. I received excellent treatment from the NHS but the healing process needs to continue long after you leave hospital and I was lucky to have fantastic support from my friends and family (in particular my wonderful wife), without whom I wouldn’t be nearly as well ahead as I am now.




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