Instead of being confined by the debilitating effects of stroke, Janet Yeo breaks free and reaches greater heights.
26 years have passed since Janet Yeo, founder and chairman of the National Stroke Association of Malaysia, was stricken by stroke, but she remembers it clearly as if it were just yesterday. “It was in the mid-1988. Six months before my stroke, I experienced many short giddy spells, just spilt second disorientations. At that time, I put it down to being tired and to lack of sleep. Now I know that they were TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack), or mini strokes caused by temporary interruption of blood supply to the brain, usually preceding a major stroke,” says Yeo.
Ignoring the signs
Yeo reveals the events of that fateful day. “On the morning of April 5, I was scheduled to do an interview with a journalist, the late Felicia Chong. I tried to make a pot of coffee at home, but my right hand wasn’t cooperating and I couldn’t complete the task. Once again, I ignored the signs,” remembers Janet.“During the interview, my head was pounding. When the phone rang, I was not able to pick it up with my right hand. It was then that I decided I was really sick and needed to go to a hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, I was totally paralysed on my right side, and my speech was slurred.”
Yeo was told she had suffered a stroke and ended up staying for a full month, in the hospital. None of the doctors treating Yeo could tell her the cause of her stroke. She was confused, frustrated and scared. For the first time in her adult life, she had to depend on someone to bathe, eat, dress and even turn over in bed. It was very humbling and humiliating as well. “I was 42-years old, the stroke took place during my sleep and had evolved into a full blown stroke at the time I was trying to do the interview. Had I gone to the hospital when my hand wasn’t taking instructions while I was trying to make the coffee, I would probably have suffered less damage. I lost 4 precious hours!”
One night, in the midst of her frustration and sorrow, Yeo decided to turn to God. “I told God that I accepted his decision to allow the stroke to happen in my life and was ready to trust him to walk me through the valley of death. Once I finished my prayer, I was at total peace. I no longer struggled or was fearful. I felt a deep sense of hope and excitement,” says Yeo.
From then on, her attitude began to change. She went back to being her chirpy self, and became competitive during therapy. “I tried my best to excel at every exercise no matter how challenging it was. I was so positive and motivated that the nurses would wheel me around to cheer up stroke patients in other wards.” When she was discharged from the hospital, Yeo’s husband decided not to hire a personal maid to care for her. “I had to plan my own therapy schedules such as acupuncture, physiotherapy and massage. He would sit me under the shower and expect me to do the rest. In the night if I had to go the toilet, I needed to strategise how to move from my bed to the bathroom without disturbing him,” reveals Yeo.
“It may sound cruel, but it was very good for me. I learned to cope and started using my brain again which was so important for my recovery. My neurologist advised me to go back to work and keep using my faculties especially my brain and to be as normal as possible. My husband also challenged me, never allowing me to feel sick or incapable.” Seven months after her stroke, Yeo went to the Los Gatos rehab hospital in California alone and it was there that she learned to be totally independent, as she had to cook, do her laundry, go to the hospital, exercise and stay focused all by herself.
Finding her calling
The same journalist, Felicia Chong, who interviewed Yeo on the morning of her stroke wanted to do an article on her recovery, upon her return from California. The article was published in the Sunday Times on August 6, 1995. The next day Yeo’s office phone rang non-stop with requests to meet and start a stroke support group. That article launched NASAM.
“From the start, I wanted NASAM to provide affordable, stroke specific rehabilitation to stroke survivors on a daily basis, which is critical for recovery. Having gone through the ordeal, I understand the pain, agony, frustration and fear of stroke patients,” says Yeo. “So our programme has been developed to address all these needs. We practise a holistic approach – not just for stroke survivors but also for the carers and family members. Since our goal is to serve all stroke survivors, rich or poor, those who can afford it are charged a higher fee. Those who cannot, pay a nominal amount and the very poor are subsidised.”
Today NASAM has eight centres in Malaysia. It is the first stroke rehab centre in Southeast Asia and Yeo is currently involved in setting one up in Singapore. “I often tell people I am thankful for my stroke. Why? In the 70s, as the youngest advertising agency owner in the country, I became a workaholic, and was even a little arrogant. I was elected President of 4A’s (Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies) in Malaysia at age 30, making me the youngest, first Malaysian and the first female to hold this position. During my four year tenure I launched the prestigious Kancil Awards, which is still in place today. My life was all about achievement, success and self-glory. I had no time for friends and families or God,” admits Yeo.
“Stroke brought me to my knees. It humbled me and made me realise that money, fame and glory is of no use when you don’t have good health or family and friends.Today I have real friends and an extremely supportive family. And, I found God and my calling! Every time I see a stroke survivor stand up from a wheel chair and walk, I am fulfilled.”
How to Prevent A Stroke
If you have any of these risk factors – high blood pressure , high cholesterol, diabetes, arterial fibrillation, heart disorders, physical inactivity, obesity, high alcohol consumption, smoking, stress and depression – seek professional care and monitor your condition regularly.
It’s also important to know the warning signs of stroke and act F.A.S.T:
F – Facial drooping
A – Arm weakness
S – Slurring of Speech
T – Time to go to the hospital and seek immediate medical attention to reduce permanent disabilities.