Fr Kevin Neal on his recovery from stroke

Fr Kevin Neal, formerly of Stratford, now living and recuperating in Hawke’s Bay, continues his account of a long and sometimes frustrating return to health after a stroke.

I had been more than two months in the hospital at Hawera when I was judged fit to leave. The doctor took a look at my arm and leg and told me not to be too hopeful.

‘You’ll probably spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair,’ I was told.

I thanked him for his honesty and I was taken out to the car to begin the next step in the saga of my redevelopment.

I have to say that in every regard the people of Hawera and Stratford were remarkable as were my family who visited me.

There had been some negotiations and I began my stay at the rest home in New Plymouth run by the Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions, RNDM. It had been the Sisters’ community in New Plymouth converted more recently to a rest home.

It’s an interesting place because it is half rest home and half girls’ boarding school. We were very close to the classrooms, too. Twice a week we were taken, by ambulance, to the physiotherapy department of the local hospital.

We came from homes and private dwellings. We had lunch together and did exercises in the gym.

In the afternoon the same occupational therapist as in Hawera took two of us for extended work. The exercises were slow and the therapy tedious but we hung on in. The stroke was severe and the repairs would be just slow.

I spent more than two months in the rest home and ever so slightly I was improving. I was on the second floor and dependent on a lift.

My aim was to make it up and down on the stairs but that was not something I was able to do.

There was Mass several times a week but I was still far from ready to preside.

It was good though because faith was slowly settling in again. I just had to participate. The elderly Sisters who were resident in the home were magnificent to me and I will always have a soft spot for that place.

The people from Stratford and surrounding area took turns at taking me home on the weekends and, apart from the occasional fall, I was able to spend my weekends at home.

A local chap had a four-wheeler for me to use so I was able to go up town. There were great reunions of course but no saying Mass yet.

The priest would come from New Plymouth several times a week for that and Claire Whareaitu (then parish worker) managed the day-to-day affairs. As a parish priest I knew that I was finished. Everyone could see the damage done to my limbs but very few had any idea of the setback my mind had taken. I will spend the rest of my life getting over that.

Yet more changes

We had finished with the Mission Rest Home before Christmas but the hospital still had two months to go. The question was where was I going to stay, especially during the week.

The answer came with the brothers’ house at Francis Douglas College (De La Salle Brothers FSC). They took me in and spoilt me rotten and all I had to do was say two Masses a week. I must have seemed pretty nervous. It was all I could do to stand up and the brothers and a few parishioners must have willed me through the first Masses.

They were like the first Masses after ordination as I was starting all over again; a few pieces remained in my memory but they were 30 or 40 years old—back to my secondary school days.

I was still very dependent on my stick for getting around. Very simply, the brothers were terrific and it was there I gathered my ‘second wind’.

As well as life in the community there was life in the college. The students and teachers made me feel welcome.

They had little chores for me to do but more than that there was conversation. Slowly I was getting some of my vocab back and in the library I could try it out little by little.

This continued for two months with the school taking four days of my week and Stratford, three. There was still no Sunday Mass, of course, and I had no role in Stratford other than as a visitor. There was no way I could have been in charge. Parishioners picked me up from town, took me out for meals and left meals for me in the presbytery, too. The parishioners were terrific as were the priests who came to the parish several times in the week from North Taranaki.

A local made a ride-on cart available for me so I was able to scoot around town and show up at the coffee bars, not that coffee meant much to me as yet. But I was free.

Another freedom came my way after Christmas. A car became available—all I had to do was learn to drive again. So off I went with my car set up especially for me. I had one leg and one arm unavailable. Six weeks of lessons later I was able to drive again.

By March 2007 I was saying semi–private Masses, driving a car, and the hospital had gone as far as it could go. I still had a fairly limited vocab, especially in public and I felt the weight of time on my hands as there was very little I could do. I had been so busy before the attack, now I had hours to fill.

It was just as well as there was really little work that I could do without falling asleep and my memory was always there with its limits. It was clear to me that I would never again be parish priest so I had to look around for a parish where I could quietly grow back to some degree of normality.