Waking up with a thumping headache, Alex Bowles put it down to a hangover after enjoying dinner and drinks with friends the night before.
She spent most of the weekend at home in the hopes of feeling better.
But by the Monday, the then 23-year-old’s head was so painful, she described it as feeling like ‘half her head was missing’.
She was also sick, and when her cleaner arrived the next day and noticed Alex was jumbling up her words and not making sense, she ended up in hospital.
There, doctors revealed she had both a clot and bleed on the brain.
It left her unable to read, write, understand or speak properly.
Waking up with a thumping headache, Alex Bowles put it down to a hangover after enjoying dinner and drinks with friends the night before. She spent most of the weekend at home in the hopes of feeling better. But by the Monday, the then 23-year-old’s head was so painful, she described it as feeling like ‘half her head was missing’. Now 32, Alex, from Brentwood, Essex, still struggles with fatigue and understanding
Now 32, Alex, from Brentwood, Essex, still struggles with fatigue and understanding, and was left shocked when, four years after her stroke, her mum suffered one too.
She said: ‘I had spent the Friday night having dinner and drinks with my friends and the next day I felt terrible. I’d had a few G&Ts, so put my headache down to a hangover.
‘When I tried to go out shopping, I felt so rough I had to sit down. So I spent the rest of the weekend at home, getting increasingly more sick, feeling faint, and wishing the pain in my head would go away.
‘I didn’t go to work on the Monday and when I spoke to a friend that evening, I told her it felt like half my head was missing. That’s the only way I could describe it. I was then sick that night and the next day.
‘It’s so hard to explain just how horrible it all was. My gut feeling was that something wasn’t right, and it was more than just a hangover. But me being me, I carried on thinking it would go away soon.’
After four days of feeling unwell, Alex’s cleaner came to her home and knew straightaway she needed help.
Alex said: ‘I started to talk to my cleaner and I assumed that I was making complete sense, but I was actually slurring and talking gibberish. The more I talked, the more worried my cleaner became.
‘Thankfully, she called my mum who rushed over and called for an ambulance.’
Paramedics arrived quickly to Alex’s home. They realised something was seriously wrong and rushed her to Queen’s Hospital in Romford.
Four years after Alex’s stroke, in 2018, it was a case of lightning striking twice for the family, when her mum Karen also suffered one. Pictured together
She said: ‘At first there were some delays when I arrived. And as time went on, I was getting worse. Lying on the hospital floor in my pyjamas, I was an absolute mess. I kept being told to sit up, but I physically couldn’t. I was finally given a bed.
‘Doctors on shift thought I had an ‘exaggerated headache’. But luckily one doctor thought it would be best I had a CT scan before going home. After more waiting, I finally had the scan that showed I’d had a huge stroke.’
Alex had suffered both an ischaemic and haemorrhagic stroke – a clot and bleed on her brain.
She said: ‘I’d experienced a type of stroke known as a sigmoid sinus thrombosis, with an extensive subarachnoid haemorrhage.
‘I was told the stroke was likely to have been caused by a combination of things — a long-haul flight I’d been on to Vegas the month before, steroids I was taking for ulcerative colitis, and the contraceptive pill.’
The Stroke Association says the Pill is linked to a slightly higher chance of suffering a stroke but cautions the risk is ‘very low’.
Alex was in hospital for two weeks, with her mum Karen by her side.
She said: ‘When I was told I’d had a stroke, I didn’t take it in because I felt so unwell. I was extremely frustrated. I couldn’t understand why I was struggling to speak properly.
‘I could listen to mum and knew exactly what she was saying, but I couldn’t have a full conversation with her no matter how hard I tried. I kept coming out with random words.’
After being discharged, Alex had to rely on family and friends. Her mum was a constant, caring for her and taking her to each doctor’s appointment.
She said: ‘I became less confident, less sociable, and increasingly emotional and angry. For six months, I could only speak to one person at a time. If there were any more than that I became upset by the noise. I was also extremely tired all the time.’
Alex had at the time been working at an animal sanctuary, and as an admin assistant for a children’s nursery, but the stroke meant she was unable to work for a year.
She underwent occupational therapy at Brentwood Community Hospital.
She said: ‘I had to endure lots of therapy and brain exercises, which I found really tough. I was being taught simple tasks and I felt like screaming, I’m not a child. But I needed to re-learn so much.
‘I was reluctant to accept I was “different”, which made me feel really angry and sad. Life as I knew it completely changed.
‘I still struggle today with the side effects of the stroke – understanding can be tricky for me, even simple jokes. I can also sometimes get behind when talking to people, which makes me feel isolated.’
Four years after Alex’s stroke, in 2018, it was a case of lightning striking twice for the family, when her mum Karen also suffered one.
Alex said: ‘I was at home when I got a call from my brother saying mum had had a stroke and she was in hospital. She’d had a headache the night before she was catering for an event and there, someone noticed she wasn’t speaking properly.
‘When I saw her, I realised she was having similar problems to those I’d faced. She was struggling to get the right words out and felt upset and defeated. I could certainly relate to how she must have been feeling.’
Karen, then 53, said: ‘When I had a stroke, I felt very confused and weak in my right leg and arm.
‘For a while, I couldn’t remember I had family and friends, and had to put up notes in the kitchen to remind myself to eat.
‘I still have difficulties now. If I get tired, I can trip because my right leg gets lazy. I also get confused if too much is going on, but I just accept it. I’m very black and white now.’
Now, at the age of 32, Alex wants to turn this traumatic time of her life into something positive. ‘Time has passed, and they say time is a healer. I’ve come so far in nine years, worked hard on my rehabilitation, and feel like I’m now in a place where I want to help other young stroke survivors’
Alex said: ‘Unlike me, mum was only in hospital a few days and didn’t receive as much support when she left, I think because she “looked” okay.
‘Mum had cared for me after my diagnosis and then our roles reversed, with me being there to support her when she needed me.’
Karen, now 58, said: ‘When Alex had a stroke, I helped her re-learn how to read, write and socialise. It’s only now that she’s involved in stroke awareness that it’s made us both realise how different we are to other people.’
Following the double diagnosis, despite still living with effects of stroke, the mum and daughter run a successful business together, owning and running Merrymeade Tea Rooms in Brentwood.
Alex said: ‘Stroke has meant we can both get frustrated, which can make running a business together quite challenging. But luckily, we have strengths in different areas which keeps things running smoothly.’
Now, at the age of 32, Alex wants to turn this traumatic time of her life into something positive.
‘Time has passed, and they say time is a healer. I’ve come so far in nine years, worked hard on my rehabilitation, and feel like I’m now in a place where I want to help other young stroke survivors.’
On Wednesday 15th November at 10-11am, Alex is hosting a support group at Merrymeade Tea Rooms.
She said: ‘I’m starting a group for stroke survivors, or anyone whose life it affects. Whether it’s recent or years ago, we’re all in the same boat one way or another.
‘For years I just got on with things. However, now I’m a bit older I feel my past is affecting me in different ways and it’s hard to find others who understand or can relate. Perhaps together, we can learn to accept the changes within us.’
Alex is also backing a campaign by charity Stroke Association to raise awareness of the impact of having a stroke at a young age.
‘I think there’s a stigma that stroke only happens to old people. I hope my experience highlights signs of stroke and helps people to know what to look out for. Gaining the right support is crucial, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel as alone as I did.’