Fr Kevin Neal’s gentle recovery from stroke

Imagine your brain as a filing cabinet with thousands of files, some related, others not. Suddenly half the cabinet doesn’t open anymore and you have no say over which half.

It’s a little more than two years now since the stroke took me. I was toiling away with the parish workers who were on Retreat in Whanganui.

I had spent some time talking with a participant when I felt my leg going numb. This is the nearest word I can get for it but, like so many things that happen in a stroke, there’s no exact word to describe it.

I asked if we could go inside as I had a fair idea what was happening. By the time we were in the doorway the arm had gone, too. The arm and leg appearing numb are the most obvious things that are noticeable but really they are the least significant.

One person put it like this: imagine that your brain is a filing cabinet with thousands of files some of which are related, some, not. Suddenly half the cabinet doesn’t open any more and you don’t have a say over which half.

Sometimes the left side of the brain is affected; other times it is right side and all sorts of things are included.

I was left with a modicum of speech, my sight was largely intact and I had the ability to swallow.

I have friends who have suffered much worse in the brain department and couldn’t speak at all or think one thought but it comes out as something else.

Most of my sentence-making went west and there is still a long way to go before it’s in place again—if ever.

For example, writing this is a hundred times harder than it was. I find I can talk to myself reasonably well but it is much harder to put in writing and infinitely harder still, to speak it out.

For the first several months I didn’t want to see many visitors because I was tired out of my mind and I just didn’t know enough to say anything. Those that did come must have wondered what they had struck as my thoughts were all over the place and that included some colourful language, I’m told.

Preaching is still all but impossible so I use old notes that I had. I was also worried about the language that might come out! But that gets ahead a bit. After a day or two with a stroke, when one feels a bit like thinking a little, there is a great deal to think about as half the ‘notes’ have gone missing.

I was three days in Whanganui then I was moved to Hawera, the hospital nearest home. A woman came to me and asked would I like to receive Communion. What’s that? I thought.

If the hospital chaplain was not so agreeable I might not ever have said ‘Yes’. I sort of knew about Communion and that it was important but I had no idea why.

I took Communion every time she offered it and gradually it has become a part of my life again but quite different from what it was before the stroke. What it was then I have no idea. As I said, that part is missing and I have had to train a new part of my brain.

My family members came up from the South Island and I must have looked pretty grim. But they came and they were an important part of the healing process.

I was, of course, parish priest of Stratford so a fill-in was required to keep the home fires burning. By all accounts, they did very well, with priests coming from all directions.

I knew that I had a good lay replacement and that made a huge difference as little by little I worked out what I was before the stroke.