‘I can walk for 50m without stopping. I feel on top of the world now’

How mirror stroke therapy is changing people's lives

Stroke patients Helen Cassells, Edward Blake and PJ Wymbs:  all benefited from mirror therapy. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Stroke patients Helen Cassells, Edward Blake and PJ Wymbs: all benefited from mirror therapy. Photograph: Brian Farrell



PJ Wymbs was getting out of bed on the morning of April 1st, 2016, when he fell.

He knew as his legs gave way that it was a stroke. The 66 year old from Kinlough, Co Leitrim, had been diagnosed with cancer five years earlier and “was just getting back to myself” when his health suffered this latest blow.

A carpenter who had discovered a gift for basket weaving and wood turning during his recovery from cancer, Wymbs is left-handed. “I lost the power on my left side,” he explained. Overnight, he went from someone who was making intricate working spinning wheels which were getting attention at craft fairs around the country, to someone who was unable to lift an empty cup or use cutlery.

The six months following the stroke was “a bad time in my life”, he says, but physiotherapists at Sligo University Hospital told him about the clinical trials being done by researchers at IT Sligo and he grabbed the opportunity.

Sensation in my fingers

PhD students Daniel Simpson and Monika Ehrensberger started calling to his home three times a week to do the mirror therapy and strengthening techniques which they believe have helped up to 40 per cent of patients tested.

“I loved to see them coming,” said PJ. “I felt an improvement after the third session. I think they did not believe me but I could feel a sensation in my fingers and I could move my arm.”

He had been trying to do without a walking stick, but was “walking around walls”. While he had been back driving six weeks after the stroke, he had to reach over with his hand to pull the handbrake.

All that has changed. After four weeks of therapy he says the progress made changed his life. “I can do most things now. I could do nothing with the hand, I could not even raise it but I’m back at the wood turning. It is weaker than it was but it is a massive improvement.

“I still have a little bit of a limp and I get tired but I can walk for 50m without stopping and I can walk faster. I feel on top of the world now.”



Helen Cassells laughs when she recalls her introduction to the treadmill and mirror, which researchers at IT Sligo are using to enhance rehabilitation for stroke patients. “The first day was hilarious. As far as I was concerned I had three legs, ” she said.

Before she suffered a stroke in 2011, Cassells from Glencar, Co Sligo, played golf “morning, noon and night”.

She remembers the first day for another reason because she maintains that almost immediately she felt a sensation in her “bad leg”.

“I think the nerves were beginning to wake up,” she said.

She was 57 when she had a stroke . “I woke up at about 7am and I could not turn over on my right side. I thought at first that I was dreaming.” While she was able to get up, she discovered at breakfast that she could not lift the spoon to eat her cereal. She started to tell her husband Laurence what was happening. “As far as I was concerned I was speaking normally but he couldn’t make out a word.”

Pronounced limp

As a result of the stroke she was paralysed on the right side. After rehabilitation in St John’s Hospital, Sligo, and the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, her mobility had improved dramatically but she still needed a walking stick sometimes and had a “very pronounced limp”. She might have settled for this life-changing limited mobility but she heard about the clinical trials at IT Sligo and decided to volunteer.

The changes have been so dramatic that “sometimes I have to remind myself that I had a stroke”. The little things delight her almost as much as the fact that she can actually run now and can go hill walking.

“Filling the kettle is one thing. I used to have to hold the kettle in my left hand but suddenly I realised I could use my right hand. I can iron now with my right hand.”

And while she hasn’t climbed Knocknarea yet, “I can walk up a hill and down again”. She is back working as a water diviner, a job she says which clearly requires the ability to hold a stick and to detect any movements in it.

“I may not be 100 per cent better but I’m back 95 per cent.”