‘I know what Emmerdale’s Marlon is going through – my husband had a stroke when he was 34’

42 year old Helena Goatley’s life changed forever when her husband Mark, 41, suffered a stroke in 2014. Helena, from Llansamlet in Wales, who shares Ethan, 18, and 11 year old Freya with Mark, shines a light on her life as a full-time carer…

“I met Mark when we were both 18 when I was working as a barmaid at a pub and Mark was a chef. He was funny, kind and popular and together we had this big dream that one day we’d take over the pub – he’d be in the kitchen and I’d be on the bar.

Mark was always a hard worker and would often do 10 to 12 hour shifts. He didn’t really take any time off of work and even during stressful periods he remained loyal to his job.

After my mum passed away in 2012, things quickly became tough for us as my dad was then diagnosed with cancer and we spent a lot of time organising care for him. Sadly he never made it out of the hospital and he died in 2014.

Inevitably it all took its toll on Mark, though we never realised until it was too late.

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The only sign that something was wrong was a couple of days prior when Mark became very tired.

I remember that we went to my sister’s for a coffee and he put his head on the table and was asleep in seconds. It was strange but we didn’t think anything of it as we had an 11 year old son, Ethan, and a four year old daughter, Freya, at home.

The stroke occurred in October 2014 when Mark was just 34. It was 10pm and he’d finished a 10 hour shift at the pub which was a few minutes from our house. As he was putting his key in the door, he could see red dots in his vision and when he got inside, he lost control of his left side and dropped his chef whites on the floor.

I was in bed and heard him shout up the stairs “Help, I’m having a stroke” to which I replied “Don’t be so stupid”. He was 34, why on earth would he be having a stroke?

However, when I looked over the side of the bannister I realised he wasn’t joking. I could see his leg going from underneath him and his face looked like it was melting. I ran down the stairs to stop him from falling and I could tell it was a stroke.

I was in a haze but I called the ambulance while my oldest child Ethan helped keep Mark alert by talking in his face. The ambulance got to the house in seconds and they confirmed our instinctive fears.

As soon as we got to Morriston Hospital, they did a scan which showed that he’d suffered a bleed on the brain which had affected his left side. It was only then that it hit me – before I could see it happening but I didn’t want to believe it.

When I heard the news, I thought that he’d never recover as people were telling me that he’d never walk again. But there was one doctor who restored my faith and said that Mark’s condition would improve if he was willing to put the work in.

In between looking after the kids, who I quickly explained to that daddy wasn’t well but he’d soon be getting better, I was visiting Mark in hospital every day and by Christmas he was learning how to walk and taking his first steps using parallel bars.

When he came home on New Year’s Eve I was filled with joy but also a lot of anxiety.

Me and the kids had been taught how to care for Mark. We learnt how to help him with zips and buttons, what to do when he fell and when to leave him alone. We’d also filled the house with baby monitors to keep tabs on him.

Still, the anxiety was huge. I must’ve checked his blood pressure 18 times a day and I ended up quitting my job at HSBC bank to look after him. Of course we were worried about money but his health had to come first and we managed to get by on what we had.

The role reversal was hard on the children. Ethan had just started secondary school and his behaviour began to decline so he moved down sets. Meanwhile Freya was a daddy’s girl but became scared of Mark because he didn’t look or sound the same – his speech was slower and his face hung down on one side.

The kids really missed the dad who took them to football and treated them to babyccinos. It forced them to grow up quickly but I’m so proud of how they’ve handled things.

Freya’s now 11 and she’ll ring me and say “Daddy’s in the shower, is he allowed in there while you’re out?” because she knows he’s not allowed to do that.

People ask “How do you cope?” and I just think that it wasn’t a choice.

I look at the positives – Mark was at work a lot but now we do more together. When Freya plays in school football matches we go as a family.

I’ll make sure that Mark has a coffee and his phone and he’ll stay in the car while I’ll record videos to send to him. Before our busy workloads meant that we’d never both be able to attend her games.

The Stroke Association has been amazing. As soon as I found them it felt like everything opened up.

Through them we found a stroke group that Mark attends once a week and he’s been able to go bike riding and even surfing. For me, it’s a break for two and a half hours and I’ll go shopping or grab a coffee.

Eight years later and things are getting better every day.

In April we moved to a new house close by, which is nearer to the town centre and everything instantly felt better.

Ethan is 18 studying to become a teacher and he has his own car which means that I don’t have to worry about driving him to uni, Freya to school and Mark to his stroke group. For the first time ever, I recently went to get my nails done.

Money’s always been tight but it’s not about that, it’s about spending time as a family and doing things together.

Admittedly, things will never be the same. Mark still can’t feel his left side and he has epilepsy too, so I can’t leave him in the house alone.

He also has difficulty remembering certain things, which can be quite dangerous – he once tried putting a knife in the toaster despite having been a chef for 20 years.

I’m so happy that Emmerdale has made Marlon’s stroke a storyline. Before this all happened I didn’t know that people Mark's age could even have one. When you think of strokes, you think of elderly people.

When Mark had his stroke, he was working too hard and that’s something that a lot of other young people do. Hopefully it’ll encourage people to slow down and even do something as simple as check their blood pressure every so often.

Just because you’re young, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you.”

If you have been affected by the topics covered in this article, or for more information and support, visit The Stroke Association.

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