In February 2020, Adam Cormack had a life altering stroke at the age of forty-three. This is his inspirational story about his recovery to give us all hope and courage as we move into 2021 – and all that it will bring to our door.
Adam works for The Woodland Trust environmental charity as head of campaigning. It’s a demanding job involving a fair amount of travelling, developing case work on trees and wood that are under threat and running campaigns to influence government spending and government policies for trees and woods. It’s work, which he says he loves, although he admits, ‘it’s kind of never ending really.’ He was back to full-time work by July. Adam is also dad to three young daughters aged eight, twelve and fourteen.
Adam joined the Woodland Trust in 2019. Before that, he’d been working for about a decade with The Wildlife Trust. After graduating in American Studies he played in a band for a few years, touring and releasing records. When it became clear this was going to be a really hard way to earn a living, Adam started following his other passion for the outdoors and the environment, which he has been doing for the past decade or so.
Sue: Thanks so much for talking to me Adam. I think a lot of people will be really touched by your story of having a stroke so young and how you have recovered from it. Where were you when it happened?
Adam: In a meeting room at work, which is not what you expect to happen. I was certainly at the younger end of the scale for such a huge stroke, and on the hospital ward, I was youngest by a couple of decades.
Sue: Did you have any warning that anything was wrong?
Adam: Well, I knew I had high blood pressure and I suppose I was feeling stressed about work and life in general – at least partly it could have been stress. Working to try and conserve habitats and wildlife is the kind of job you can dedicate your whole life to and still feel like you’ve failed. But I am lucky that I work for a charity that does make an impact, and we’ve got a really good team of people who are good at their jobs. I suppose you get very engrossed in what you are doing and feel you can never work hard enough. As head of campaigning, I am also very conscious of representing our members and supporters and doing a good job on their behalf. So, in this respect, you can put a lot of pressure on yourself.
Sue: Yes, I can imagine that is quite stressful. Were you with colleagues when you had the stroke?
Adam: No, I was on my own. I was in the middle of a phone call, actually. I felt what I would describe as a sort of creeping sense of icy numbness coming across my face, which was also affecting the whole left-hand side of my body. I was probably experiencing this for a couple of minutes before the call finished, maybe even a bit longer. It was quite gradual because I was able to finish the phone call.
I knew something quite bad was happening to me, but I don’t think I thought I was having a stroke though. I do remember thinking, ‘Oh, if I could just get outside, it’d be fine. I just need some fresh air.’ I look back on this with incredulity now!
Sue: Were you frightened by what was happening to you?<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><strong>Adam:</strong> No. I think at the time it was more about coping, thinking things like, ‘I'll be okay. I just need to do this and that.’ So actually, I don't think I was scared looking back. Adam: No. I think at the time it was more about coping, thinking things like, ‘I’ll be okay. I just need to do this and that.’ So actually, I don’t think I was scared looking back.
Sue: You couldn’t imagine it was a stroke?
Adam: No, not really. And, I’ve never thought – irrespective of having high blood pressure – that one day I might have a stroke even though two of my grandparents had had them. So, I’ve been aware of strokes and spent time with people in their recovery from them – it wasn’t as if I had no knowledge or understanding of that. It just never crossed my mind that this was on the list of things that would happen to me.
Sue: How did you summon help?
Adam: I remember trying to get up off my chair, standing up and just toppling over. I couldn’t put any weight on my leg. I fell on the floor and bashed my shoulder and knee on the way down. I then remember lying on the floor, and things were getting worse. I also wet myself. I was conscious there was a sort of big warm, wet patch over the front of my trousers, and being really embarrassed. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to get a colleague in here to help me because I can’t get up. But I’ve just wet myself. What am I going to do?’ Then feeling really sad about it. But, I also had enough grasp of the situation to realise that I had to get hold of somebody.
Sue: Was fear any part of this?
Adam: I want to think back – I mean, maybe – it’s a bit hazy because my brain was malfunctioning in a really major way. But fear is not the dominant emotion when I go back there. There was definitely a sense of concern though. I think I rang a colleague – not texted – and said, ‘Can you come into the meeting room? I’m in the meeting room. Don’t be alarmed. I’m on the floor.’ And I think I might have actually said, ‘I think I’m having a stroke or something.’ Because I think by that point – yeah – it was clear that I couldn’t walk, and one side of my body was feeling really weird.
Sue: Were you in pain or was it just numbness?
Adam: It was just a very odd sensation of numbness. Even now when I can move my body, there’s parts of my body which are still quite numb, and it feels weird in my hands – like a strange pins and needles sensation that never really goes. But I’m quite accustomed to that now. Lying on the floor back then, it was like really severe numbness., I couldn’t even feel my hand on my leg or anything. So, it wasn’t pain. No, it wasn’t pain. Actually, I don’t recall having any pain.
Sue: And, your colleague came in and found you?
Adam: She was brilliant and immediately called the First Response Unit – we’ve got volunteer first aiders at work who are trained to help in situations like this. I have to say they were absolutely amazing. You know, you can take these people for granted because they are colleagues and you know them in a different context. But I was so impressed with the way they were really on it. I felt I trusted them immediately. They knew what to do, and this put me at ease. They got me into a sort of stretcher wheelchair thing and wheeled me out. I remember again, feeling quite sad and quite self-conscious, because I was on the top floor in the office and I knew the only way out was to be wheeled past at least 100 people. It was also lunchtime and everyone else was having a normal day. And here’s me like nearly dying.
Sue: Did you really think you were dying?
Adam: I didn’t have any memory of thinking this might be my final moments and reflecting on my life, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is not an experience I’ve ever had in my life. And this is a lot worse than anything I’ve ever experienced before in my 43 years on this planet. What is going to happen to me?’ So, I think there was a sort of existential level of concern for my future. I don’t think I’d quite translated that into, ‘Oh, my god, I’m about to die.’ But I remember thinking – and certainly, in the immediate days following in hospital – ‘I’m never going to walk again.’ You know, that kind of thought. Looking back, by the time I was in the ambulance, going to hospital, I was probably starting to think some of those sorts of things.
Sue: I can feel the emotion as you talk about it. Are you okay to carry on?
Adam: Yes, it does make me emotional thinking about it. Yeah. It’s quite common. I am aware of the impact that it’s had on me most of the time. I haven’t thought about the actual experience for a while though, but I’m comfortable talking about it.
Sue: Were you conscious as they took you into hospital?
Adam: I remember Jo, my wife, being there in this small room that they first took me into. And I can vaguely remember somebody telling me I’d had a stroke. I think this may have happened in the ambulance on the way. To be honest, I can remember having the stroke itself with almost filmic clarity, but the rest of it becomes quite hazy and dream-like for the next 48 hours or so.
They took me first to Lincoln hospital and on the same day to the Queen’s Medical Centre, which is a big hospital in Nottingham where they have a neurosurgery unit. They took me there in case they needed to operate. And again, I don’t think at the time I really contemplated the reality of having to potentially have brain surgery. I would have probably been a lot more worried if I knew they were taking me to the neurosurgery ward, because that would mean things were really bad. But I was quite sleepy and drowsy, so I didn’t worry. I never had the sense of things getting worse by the minute, or that there was a panic situation.
Sue: But I guess things were getting critical?
Adam: I only knew this talking to Jo afterwards. She had done an amazing job of researching stroke recovery on her phone, while sitting with me. There’s a fairly high percentage of people who die from haemorrhagic strokes. So, it’s about getting through the first 24 hours and then the chance drops a bit. But the risk is still relatively high, particularly for a week or two afterwards. Then the risks fall again. I can’t recall at what point we had a conversation about all of that, but I think we did fairly early on, so I could start to get a bit of a grasp of the situation I was in and what was happening to me.
Sue: So, quite early on you realised it was really serious?
Adam: Yeah. I mean, I knew it was serious because I couldn’t feel my leg. And I was on a hospital ward, surrounded by people who were not in a good way. But one of my main memories is wanting to go to the toilet really badly in the ambulance. But this is a characteristic of having a stroke. I’ve done some reading about it, and it’s a common feature because there’s a sort of short circuiting of the signals between your brain and bladder.
It started when I was in the meeting room and being self-conscious about the fact that I’d wet myself. And I remember in the ambulance really needing the toilet more than I’d ever needed it in my life. And pleading to go to the toilet, and them telling me I couldn’t because I was in an ambulance being rushed to hospital. Certainly, during the first few days I didn’t have much control over my bladder. That was a really humbling experience, you know. Feeling very vulnerable and weak, I suppose.
Sue: You’ve obviously had a miraculous recovery from such a serious stroke. It’s only been a few months since it happened.
Adam: Yeah, I had the stroke on Valentine’s Day. Even though life has been turned upside down, not just for me but for those around me as well, my overriding emotion now is one of gratitude. Things could have been so much worse.
Sue: How has it changed your relationship with life and death?
Adam: That’s a big one. It definitely has. It’s mentally changed me as a person actually. And it’s probably made me a better person. That’s quite a weird thing to say but generally I have cruised through life and been in a really privileged position. That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t tried hard. I have certainly poured my heart and soul into my job. But I now realised I have gone through life without really connecting enough to myself or, often, with people around me.
Another thing that’s changed is feeling much more humble about things, and more vulnerable. It’s not that I was some kind of arrogant show off beforehand, but I think I was quite guarded. I mean, I am still a work in progress and will be for the rest of my life, but I do feel I’ve had a fundamental shift around emotional connection – although it is hard to describe.
Sue: What do you mean by that?
I understand that a kind of heightened sense of emotion is a known feature of strokes and the after-effects. So, I’m conscious that’s in the mix. I do cry more readily now and I don’t ever remember crying at TV programme or films or being moved to tears by music so easily before.
While I was in hospital in Nottingham a nurse would come in and do the cleaning in the ward every morning. She was amazing. She would connect with each person in a way that was very warm, very empathic. I remember seeing the effect this had on all the men, some of whom were in a really bad way. It had a huge impact on them. I was watching her and became conscious that tears were running down my face. I thought, ‘This is not normally how I would respond in a situation like this.’ But it was really beautiful, and what she was doing was a beautiful thing.
I also have an amazing aunt who is a doctor and has worked with stroke rehab. In hospital we had a long talk about the idea that what had happened to me could possibly turn out to be some kind of gift – as long as physical impairment isn’t too serious. She told me people often report feeling very different after a stroke and sometimes better about themselves. I could see how this could happen and realised that maybe I wouldn’t ever be 100% recovered, but also I wasn’t going to be in my hospital bed for my whole life.
Sue: I imagine this must have been such a relief.
Adam: Yeah. That conversation was a real turning point for me.
Sue: How did things progress for you?
Adam: I started to walk again, first with a Zimmer frame and then with a walking stick. I left hospital in a wheelchair, but by then I had been walking unaided otherwise they would not have discharged me. I was certainly wobbly though. I also thought I might need a walking stick for the rest of my life. It was hard to see beyond that. But the reality is that for quite a lot of people in stroke recovery, you can make amazing progress.
Sue: I guess it also helped because you were so young and fit?
Adam: Yeah, the physios said as much in hospital – I had good core strength and I needed that to find my balance again. I really enjoyed doing physiotherapy – all the staff were incredible – I was very moved to realise this whole support network was there for people like me in trouble.
Sue: What would you say were your priorities now? What really matters to you?
Adam: I need a few moments to think about that. First and foremost it’s the people around me. I hope I’m getting better at being more attuned to what my daughters need and what I can give them. My world has also shrunk. One thing that has been running along in parallel with my own health crisis has been the COVID pandemic. The first lockdown started a few days after I came out of hospital, which means that life has been very close to home. But that’s been good. I can walk a few miles, pretty comfortably, and I can even run about a mile or so and I can ride a bike a bit. I can also drive a bit and play the guitar again. But I can’t do any of those things in the way that I used to. I have to concentrate harder and I find that more difficult to do.
So, life is very much about being at home, surrounded by the people I love. I’m back at work now as well, but I’m still not travelling very far.
Sue: Does it bother you that you can’t do as much as you used to do?
Adam: No, no. I’ve always been quite a restless soul and I’ve always liked exploring new places. But I am finding that I can get the same sort of spiritual nourishment from just engaging with the world around me. It’s about feeling a bit more emotionally connected with myself and with the world. So yeah, I’m finding moments of happiness in everyday life that constantly surprise me.
Sue: So, you feel more at peace with who you are?
Adam: Yeah. I do. That’s an easy one to answer.
Sue: Do you think you could have found this peace without experiencing the stroke?
Adam: Possibly not. I think I could have gone through life without ever getting to this place.
Sue: I would imagine that’s quite a scary thought?
Adam. Yes, it is scary. I’ve thought about that quite a lot and spoken with Jo about it. I think with the benefit of hindsight, I look back at life and wish I’d lived some of my life a bit differently. I’ve had lots of good moments in it, but deep down I often wasn’t very comfortable in myself and maybe sometimes I wasn’t able to be there for the people around me in a way that I could have. I have different ideas about why this was so, but fundamentally I was quite guarded and found it hard to open up emotionally. But one feature of having a stroke and going through recovery is you have no option but to open up. I had to do it.
Sue: What would you say you have learnt the most about who you are?
Adam: I think it would be accepting myself – accepting the good and bad bits of who I am and understanding they are all part of me. It’s actually a lot deeper, richer and more complex than talking in black and white – but it has been accepting those parts of me that I was hiding or running away from.
Sue: Talking to you on zoom, I would never dream you’ve had a stroke. You look so fit and well.
Adam: You might if you saw me getting around.
Sue: Will that get better?
Adam: I think so. I’m doing physio to speed it along. I’ve gone through the rapid part of my recovery where things change by the day – and that’s really motivating. One day you can’t walk and the next day you can. I remember sitting in the chair in a corridor after I had walked unaided for the first time and being in tears. It was such a big thing to go through. It’s different for everyone, but it would be reasonable to expect further improvement for another year or so.
Sue: What would you say to anyone who’s had a stroke, particularly to a young person like you?
Adam: I would say life goes on. There have been several instances where I was really getting hooked on the permanency of the state I was in and thinking that things would be bad for ever. I certainly had moments where I thought I was never going to walk again, or I was going to need a walking stick for the rest of my life.
When I came out of hospital, I spoke to a few people who’d had strokes and I found that really helpful. So, I would say talk to people who understand what you’re going through. I would also say, stay strong, stay with it, and work on it. And, there’s something about feelings and emotions – giving yourself permission to feel what’s happening to you.
Sue: I imagine it’s changed your relationship with your wife and daughters too.
Adam: It definitely has. Being cared for is very touching especially when someone puts their life on hold to look after you, which Jo did for me. It makes me very emotional thinking about this. It’s such a strong thing for someone to do.
Sue: It’s an example of what real love is.
Adam: Yes, it is.
Sue: What happens when you think of the future?
Adam: Not going very far! But that’s fine. I don’t have any grand plans. I’m just glad to be here. I am much more focused on day-to-day life – putting down other ambitions makes it easier for me to feel happiness.
Sue: That’s all anyone can want!
Adam: Yeah! It’s weird isn’t it!
Sue: Knowing this, are you glad the stroke happened?
Adam: I don’t know. I think the impact this has had on people around me would make it really difficult to say that. But I think it’s done something to me that needed to happen.
Sue: Do you think there’s a sense of a higher power around all this?
Adam: I’ve talked a lot with Jo about it. That’s one way to make sense of it. And, I also understand there are biological factors, such as high blood pressure, at play as well. It’s not like I am clinging onto an easy explanation. But personally, I am perfectly at ease thinking about a spiritual world as a sort of ‘everything happens for a reason’ – it’s fate and destiny. I’m very comfortable with that.
Sue: How do you now feel about the crisis situation we are all facing, when you equate what’s happened to you and what’s happening to the planet.
Adam: From a work point of view, I have had to focus on a lot of practicalities such as getting back to work full time after all these months off. But I have had occasional thoughts about how I’m going to make these things fit together. I haven’t quite found it yet.