Jason and Narelle Harlow’s home is a cheerful one. We chat at the kitchen table; children’s cartoons chattering away happily in the background, keeping nine-year-old daughter Maddy entranced.
We’re reading through old diaries and looking at newspaper clippings from when Jason and his young family’s lives changed almost a decade ago.
“I was 37 when I had my stroke,” Mr Harlow said.
“That’s pretty young, but people of all ages have them.”
That was in November 2009, when Mrs Harlow, then 34, was eight months pregnant with Maddy.
“Jason collapsed in the office at work,” she said.
“His boss knew what to do and attended to him immediately.”
In less than five hours, Mr Harlow had been transferred to St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where he was given a gloomy prognosis.
“I was a truck salesman,” Mr Harlow said.
“I had a truck licence – when I had the stroke, that was taken away from me. I knew I had to get it back.”
Determined to prove his doctors wrong, Mr Harlow regained some mobility within a few weeks, and returned to Shepparton soon after to begin his rehabilitation at GV Health.
Mr Harlow’s therapy included speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy.
“Rehab was great,” Mrs Harlow said.
“Jason had his own room with a bathroom. He’d go to therapy and I’d lay on his bed – I was so heavily pregnant. Staff would bring me a lunch as well. I pretty much lived there.”
Mr Harlow was scheduled to be discharged the week before Maddy was born.
“The hospital decided to keep him in and discharge me after the birth to get some rest,” Mrs Harlow said.
“That helped me get into the routine of having a new baby, which was great.”
Jason was by Mrs Harlow’s side when she gave birth to Maddy on January 23, 2010.
“Now she had two kids to look after!” he said.
Reflecting on their family’s journey, the Harlows consider themselves fortunate.
“I didn’t really believe it was happening until I went to the hospital and saw him,” Mrs Harlow said.
“It was frightening.”
Mrs Harlow is particularly grateful for the quick response from paramedics.
“If Jason didn’t get up there straight away, it could have been worse,” she said.
“The doctors got onto St Vincent’s and flew him straight down to Melbourne.”
In hindsight, rehabilitation wasn’t without its lighter moments for the Harlows. Mrs Harlow laughed as she remembers Mr Harlow’s attempts to sneak McDonald’s into the hospital for lunch, and grimaces good-naturedly when she recalls their summer walks around the block - with Mr Harlow in a wheelchair - while she was due to give birth.
Family and community were the two major contributing factors offering the Harlows stability as they embarked on the twin journeys of rehabilitation and becoming parents to Maddy.
“The big things were Jason’s health and mobility,” Mrs Harlow said.
“We had to figure out how we were going to support ourselves if he didn’t get better.”
“We were really lucky to have support from the family – our parents and siblings were all fantastic,” Mr Harlow said.
The Harlows are keen to point out that Jason had experienced no warning signs prior to his stroke.
“Doctors said an irregular heartbeat had caused the stroke,” Mrs Harlow said.
“We later learned via brain scans that he’d had several strokes in his sleep. He was playing footy not long before that.”
The family is also thankful for the care shown by the GV Health team. They have regularly visited for coffee and a catch-up with staff over the years.
The sense of tight-knit community is clear when Mrs Harlow points out that their dog once escaped into the Emergency Department, but was back with them soon after when a staff member recognised it from one of the family’s visits.
“Everyone was so good to us,” Mrs Harlow said.
“Even now, 10 years later, a staff member will see us in the street and say hello.”
As for Mr Harlow’s truck licence, he’s now earned it back and drives full-time for a living. He’s philosophical about his and his family’s health journey during the past decade.
“It’s an experience I wish I’d never had, but I’m lucky that when it happened I had such good care and excellent support from my family.”
Evolving options for stroke care
Stroke treatment has changed a lot in the decade since Jason Harlow was discharged, according to GV Health’s divisional clinical director of medicine Dr Arup Bhattacharya.
“I started at GV Health at the end of 2011,” Dr Bhattacharya said.
“We have come a long way since then – we offer a comprehensive range of stroke services, which the executive has pushed hard to ensure is always at the top of the agenda.”
Dr Bhattacharya said GV Health provided every aspect of stroke care, including stroke rehabilitation, hyper-acute and acute stroke care. There is a dedicated acute stroke unit on the medical ward, in addition to the recently opened stroke rehabilitation ward in the Mary Coram Unit.
Strokes can be caused by a range of lifestyle factors.
“Risk increases with age, but you can reduce the chances of suffering a stroke by having regular blood pressure checks, managing weight and high blood pressure aggressively, and getting at least 30 minutes of regular strenuous physical activity,” Dr Bhattacharya said.
“You should also get diabetes and cholesterol checked regularly and eat healthily, avoiding processed foods.”
GV Health started using clot-busting medications — thrombolysis — in 2012.
Since then the organisation has partnered with the Victorian stroke telemedicine network, which gives patients in the region access to cutting-edge technology.
“We also have access to a suite of neurologists who assess our patients remotely,” Dr Bhattacharya said.
“They then help our doctors make decisions on the best course of treatment.”
Dr Bhattacharya said he and his team were dedicated to the continual improvement of GV Health’s stroke treatment services.
“We’re focused on streamlining our processes, for example improving our door-to-needle time,” he said.
“The goal is for eligible patients to receive thrombolysis in the shortest possible time.”
This means delivering therapy to a patient as soon as possible – ideally within four-and-a-half hours – helping to reduce the damage to the nerve cells in the brain. Every minute lost means two million neurons are destroyed.
“GV Health is proud to offer a comprehensive stroke service,” Dr Bhattacharya said.
“Our Allied Health clinicians give strokes a priority, offering dedicated rehabilitation with good outcomes. We are committed to providing a full set of stroke treatment services, and recognise our responsibility to the community in helping to improve general health through education and awareness raising.”