‘I was more likely to win the lottery than recover, so I feel like I’ve won the lottery’

Clodagh Dunlop’s stroke at 35 caused locked-in syndrome but she defied the odds

Clodagh Dunlop recovering in hospital

Clodagh Dunlop recovering in hospital

 

Clodagh Dunlop was screaming for help, but nobody could hear her. “You feel like an astronaut detached from a space shuttle,” she explains. “You’re surrounded by people but you’re completely alone. It’s just terrifying.”

She was suffering from locked-in syndrome – a rare condition in which a person is completely paralysed in all parts of their body, apart from the muscles that control eye movement.

In 2015, Dunlop suffered a major stroke after a clot released from an artery in her neck and travelled to the base of her brain, cutting off the blood supply. She was extremely lucky to survive, and even luckier to recover from locked-in syndrome.

“Statistically I was told that I was more likely to win the lottery than to ever recover, so in a sense I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” she says.

A 35-year-old police officer from Co Derry with a passion for running, at first nobody thought somebody who was so young and healthy could be suffering a stroke. Instead, medical staff assumed she must have taken illegal drugs.

“It was terrifying,” remembers Dunlop. “I was desperate for help but no one believed there was anything wrong with me.

“When I had the seizure, I could hear and see everything that was going on around me, but I had no control over my body, I couldn’t make any noise or stop the shakes.

“I could hear the nurse shouting out, ‘Clodagh, what drugs have you taken?’ and I wanted to shout back, ‘I haven’t taken drugs, there’s something wrong with my head’. Then the whole world went black, and I now know I was put into a medically-induced coma.”

She woke up nine days later in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, unable to move or speak.

“I was convinced many times that I was going to die in hospital because I couldn’t communicate the fact that I was overheating or in pain,” says Dunlop.

“It was only because my partner Adrian noticed I could blink that we were able to work out a way of communicating until I could learn to make a sound again.”

The expectation was that Dunlop would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair; she overhears conversations in the hospital corridor “that make it sound like my life is over”.

Incredibly, after three months locked inside her own body, Dunlop began to recover. “I remember spelling out to Adrian [on a spelling board], ‘I will get better and I will be the best that I can be’, and I’ve always been very focused on that,” she says. “I do like to prove people wrong.”

Prove them wrong she has. As she recovered, she was determined to do something to help other people in the same condition. She has now published a book, A Return to Duty, in which tells the story of her illness and her recovery.

“People always asked me, ‘what it’s like to be locked in?’ and it’s really hard to describe it in a sentence, so the book, in a way, was my way of explaining what it’s like.

“When I was lying in intensive care, I felt that I was a pioneer. I wondered, has anybody ever experienced this?”

As soon as she was able, she used her spelling board to ask Adrian if he would document her thoughts and feelings each day.

“I knew from early on that I wanted to write about it, and when I understood I had locked in syndrome I started to research it, and I found there’s very little material out there to help people with the illness.

“I knew that I wanted to give back to families whose loved ones have locked in syndrome, so they can understand what it’s like and maybe help their loved ones who have it.”

Dunlop is also back at work. 18 months after her stroke she returned to her job in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), where she is now a detective.

“Policing is very rewarding, and I always knew I wanted desperately to get back to it. I love helping people when they’re at their most vulnerable, and when they call the police is when they’re looking for help.

“Now I’m post-stroke, I know what it’s like to be vulnerable. A life-changing event doesn’t have to be an illness, it can be when you become a victim of crime, and I understand now the emotions people go through when they’re angry and frightened.

“All of the emotions I felt because of my illness mean I can relate now to how people feel when they become the victim of crime.”

She has also become a campaigner; she has lobbied government to introduce new legislation to reshape stroke services, and works to raise awareness of locked-in syndrome and how strokes can affect younger people.

Dunlop still faces challenges – she has right-sided weakness, which means she has to wear a carbon fibre splint on her right leg and she has had to learn to write with her left hand, and hopes to use the money raised through her book to fund specialist rehabilitation treatment in the United States.

Her dream is to travel the world, and to return to her beloved running. “Before my illness I liked exploring different countries in the world but I’ve been restricted at the moment to Europe, but I’d love to make to New Zealand or South America.

“Ultimately the dream would be, one day, to get back to running. Yes, I need to focus on my walking at the moment and improve it, but that’s the dream.

“I know how many people have messaged me to say my story is one of hope, and I really feel now that for anybody who is in difficult times, you can get through whatever life throws at you if you don’t give up and keep pushing on.”
A Return to Duty by Clodagh Dunlop is available from beatinglockedin.com and at branches of Waterstones in Northern Ireland.

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