Hamilton Young Stroke Survivor Group

Bret Hart and Jeff Wolfenden

Bret Hart and Jeff Wolfenden

When a stroke suddenly occurs, life changes completely – for the survivor, and for their families and loved ones. But what happens when you have a stroke in the prime of your life? For younger stroke survivors, adjusting to the new ‘normal’ brings with it a different set of challenges. How does a stroke affect family, employment and life going forward when the survivor is young?

These are the questions that Hamilton residents Jeff Wolfenden and Jennifer Walkes had when they had their strokes – at 41 years old.

Jeff was a typical suburban dad. He worked in real estate law, was a devoted minor hockey league coach and a dedicated family man to his wife and two children. Jeff had no idea that what started as a regular April afternoon would be the start of a whole new life.

While painting his ceiling, he began experiencing the symptoms of what would be a catastrophic brain stem stroke. Very few people survive this type of stroke. Jeff spent the first six weeks after his stroke completely paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak, swallow, eat or breathe on his own.

Jennifer Walkes

Jennifer was at her gym when she became confused and unable to hold a weight with her left hand. She couldn’t recognize her water bottle and when she spoke, unbeknownst to her, her words weren’t making sense. Jennifer had the miraculous good fortune to be working out with a doctor. The doctor quickly recognized the signs of stroke and Jennifer was rushed to the hospital and administered the clot-busting drug that has helped tremendously in her recovery.

Jeff learned to walk and talk again, and while he still has some weakness on is right side, he makes strides everyday. Jennifer regained her mobility and although she still has difficulties with word-finding and fatigue she too believes she improves daily.

Both Jeff and Jennifer have made remarkable progress in their stroke recovery journeys, but were looking for inspiration and support from people who knew what they were experiencing – fellow survivors. More importantly, they wanted to hear the stories of other people their age, to learn from one another to help navigate the unique challenges faced by young stroke survivors.

With the encouragement of March of Dimes, Jeff started the Hamilton Young Stroke Survivors Group (HYSS) and quickly developed an executive committee that included Jennifer.

Jennifer’s Occupational Therapist suggested she join HYSS. Jennifer decided to try one meeting, but when she arrived, she immediately realized the benefits.

“I thought, this is so great, these people are just like me,” says Jennifer. “It is so hard to explain to somebody who isn’t a survivor what it’s like for us – these meetings are the one place I really feel I can be myself, that I don’t have to try so hard,” she continues.

Understanding, compassion and support are the hallmarks of HYSS. The group brings in keynote speakers to discuss subjects like tax preparation with special needs, employment needs and other topics unique to the younger survivor. They alternate meetings, with one acting as a learning session and the other purely a social meeting. Meetings are held in the evenings to accommodate the schedules of survivors who have gone back to work or caregivers, who are also an integral part of HYSS.

“The meetings are such a break, because I feel in this group, we communicate in the same way, we speak the same language,” says Jennifer. “And there is no judgment, if we get tired, if we ask the same question twice, it’s all okay - and that is just so nice,” she continues.

Jeff initially went to group meetings to find inspiration from other survivors, but quickly learned that he himself was a source of inspiration. He wants to encourage other survivors and show them that they can make strides in their stroke recovery – even incremental changes can add up to a big difference.

"I just focus on the simple facts, keep a positive outlook, know that although your pace may be slower and more focused, you can get better every day,"
Jeff says.

The group has been meeting for less than a year, and already has over 20 committed members who meet regularly.

"I just really want to thank the March of Dimes for helping us find this group and each other,” says Jennifer. "Where would be without a March of Dimes – I have really found my place at HYSS and thanks to March of Dimes, we are helping others survive in the Hamilton community,” she continues.

The Hamilton Young Stroke Survivor (HYSS) group meets:

6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month
at Fortinos, 75 Centennial Parkway North
Hamilton, Ontario

For more information please email hyss@marchofdimes.ca or call 1-800-263-3463 ext. 7207.

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