It’s pitch perfect for Derry’s stroke survivors

Betty Brown. (DER4313SL211)
Betty Brown. (DER4313SL211)

It’s dark outside, it has just started to rain and from outside a building in an industrial estate singing can be heard.

I ring the door bell and a woman in a bright red Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) polo shirt answers the door and whispers “are you Andrew?”. I answer yes and she sends me in the direction of the singing.

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Men and women, young and old, I hear many different voices singing and a piano plays in the background.

All of the people in the room are different in so many ways but the one thing they all have in common is that they all have been affected by stroke in the past. That doesn’t mean every person in the room has experienced a stroke; some of the people are relatives of those who have had a stroke and some are NICHS volunteers.

The group come from all over Derry and have gathered to rehearse two concerts that will take place in the Playhouse Theatre in Artillery Street next month.

The concert is called ‘Stroke Odysseys’ and it’s part of the Derry City of Culture 2013 programme.

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The aim of ‘Stroke Odysseys’ is to explore the experiences of local people affected by stroke through music and short films.

The music for ‘Stroke Odysseys’ has been composed by critically acclaimed English composer Orlando Gough , libretto by Chris Rawlence and additional lyrics and songs have been written by the local people who are taking part. The entire project is being facilitated by Wall2Wall Music who are based in Ebrington Park.

Ken Mitchell needs a walking stick to make his way from his chair to the door but at the age of 73 his smile is every bit as youthful as it was when he was a teenager and his handshake that of an athlete.

Ken suffered a stroke on June 8 2011. That wasn’t to be the last of the pain and anguish visited upon Ken because several weeks later his wife passed away.

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With both hands resting on the top of his walking stick, Ken sits and recalls that awful period in his life.

“It was as if everything was taken away from me back then.

“My wife, my independence, being able to drive and my ability to do something as trivial and everyday as buy a newspaper.

“I suffered serious memory loss, couldn’t speak and couldn’t walk. Then my wife passed away - it was just a terrible time.”

Nothing will ever assuage the agonising distress Ken must have felt in 2009 but he explained that the support he received from NICHS has helped to attain a degree of normality that he is comfortable with.

“I can’t speak highly enough of this group. The help and support I have received here from day one has been top notch.

“I might not have the greatest singing voice in the world but we are looking forward to the concerts in the Playhouse. I’ll do my very best.

“Everyone knows all about the big events that have happened in the city during the City of Culture year but our two concerts are a chance for the stroke community in the city to have their voices heard,” said Ken smiling.

A lot of the people at the rehearsal have endured experiences that many of us would find impossible to imagine but still they manage to keep smiling.

Ken’s smile and sense of humour is not on its own. Betty Brown has suffered several strokes and heart attacks since the mid 1980s and still she refuses to give in.

Betty’s in her eighties but she has the spirit of a champion boxer.

“I refuse to let it beat me. A positive attitude is better than any pill,” said Betty with her hands clasped together.

“It’s too easy to sit and dwell on all that has gone wrong but through NICHS and projects such as ‘Stroke Odysseys’ there’s never a day goes by that I don’t smile.

“We have only been rehearsing for the concert for the last few weeks and the craic is ninety as the man says,” she laughed

“Like Ken said, I think it’s very important that the stroke community are able to take part in the City of Culture - our voice and what we have to say is just as important as anyone else’s.”

If anyone thought that stroke was something only experienced by men and women in their seventies and eighties they would be wrong.

Tom McElhinney is the NICHS area manager for the North West but when he was 53 years-old he suffered a stroke when driving his family home from the airport after a holiday.

“Luckily I managed to get the car stopped without killing anyone.

“Up until that time I worked as a financial advisor for 25 years but when you have a stroke it can take a long time for you to fully recover.”

By the time Tom recovered his job had gone and he had to completely reassess his life and the direction it was going in.

“No one was willing to look at a man in his fifties who had a just recovered from a stroke but I was lucky, I got a job working in Belfast and then a while after this position came up in Derry and that’s where I am today.

“Words can’t describe how much I love the work I do and the people I work with.

“When I had the stroke my life had to change but it also had to go on,” said Tom.

Kay Green and John Doherty are two of about 25 NICHS volunteers. Kay and John will both be taking part in the concerts and whilst there might be a few pre-event nerves Kay believes the two nights are going to be out of this world.

“It’s a bit like Tesco, in the sense that every little helps. No matter how big or how small everything that goes on here helps everyone.

“I think many in the group would agree that it’s hard to leave this place without a smile on your face.

“We have had plenty of laughs along the way and I just hope plenty of people come to the concerts in the Playhouse - we’ve put a lot of hard work in and we really want people to hear what it is like for the stroke community of Derry,” she said.

John, who suffered a brain injury before volunteering with NICHS, said as far as he is concerned the group and the members offer a sense of release to one another and many of them can’t help but feel a little cheery when they come to the weekly meetings.

“The support network here is just amazing. We also have a group of younger stroke victims who meet up on a regular basis too and they are just as great to work with. I’ve really enjoyed rehearsing all of the songs and hopefully it’ll be something to remember,” smiled John.

Sarah from Wall2Wall Music, who facilitate ‘Stroke Odysseys’ explained how the project came about and said working with the local stroke community has been an amazing experience.

“Working with the local stroke community came from a connection Wall2Wall Music made with Rosetta Life. Based in Oxford in England, Rosetta Life are renowned for changing the way we perceive people who live with life limiting illnesses.

“They specialise in giving people a voice through creative and cultural activities. The City of Culture team wanted to reach out to all local communities and open up ways for people to participate and encouraged us to connect with the Stroke Unit in Altnagelvin and local chest, heart and stroke groups. Then the idea just developed from there.

“I have also got a lot out of the project. It has helped me understand the work and care that goes into dealing with stroke and reminded me that everyone deserves a creative life no matter what challenges they are facing.”

Sarah explained the project was started last year and said that she has been delighted with the participation of some of Derry’s top musicians.

“Well it’s not work if you enjoy it! The initial setting up began in 2012 and over the past nine months Chris Rawlence from Rosetta Life, composer Orlando Gough and myself have been meeting wonderful local people who have survived stroke, their families and carers.

“We’ve gathered their stories and Orlando and Chris have created new songs and short films articulating their experiences. I have also run some creative weekends which brought members of the stroke community, nurses, doctors and members of the public together to write some additional songs.

“The songs are moving and uplifting and to help us perform them we have formed a ‘Stroke Odysseys’ chorus. So every Thursday over the past number of weeks members of the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke group along with members of the public who want to support the project have been learning the songs and enjoying each other’s company.

“We are about to go into final rehearsals which will also involve a great professional band of musicians including Ruth McGinley piano, Eoin O’Callaghan voice, Kathryn O’Callaghan voice, Laura Sheerin voice, Seamus Devenny percussion, Kevin Murphy clarinets and Michael McGinty double bass. I will be playing the flute and directing. It has been busy but incredibly rewarding.”

The Stroke Odysseys performances take place on November 4 and 5 in the Playhouse Theatre at 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked through the Playhouse Theatre, tel: 028 7126 8027.

Anyone interested in singing with the group can still take part. All they have to do is email Sarah Murphy: sarah@wall2wallmusic.org

For more information on Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke telephone Tom McElhinney and his team on 02871 377 222.