In the press recently, there have been a number of reports of strange transformations that have taken place in individuals after stroke. One example from a couple of weeks ago is that of the Englishman in his seventies who emerged from a stroke-induced coma speaking fluent Welsh. He had lived in Wales early in his life, and had been surrounded by Welsh speakers, though had never previously spoken the language himself. He has had to re-learn English, apparently. Then there is Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroanatomist who describes in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, how her stroke gave her completely new insights into the functioning of the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
In my view these examples simply reinforce the need for us to try to understand more fully the miracle that is the human brain so that when it is damaged, through stroke or other causes, we can apply that knowledge to improve the lives of those affected by brain trauma.
In my own case – apart from the obvious disabling effects – I can report two unexpected changes that took place following the stroke I suffered in 2004. The first of these was a welcome end to the debilitating migraines I had suffered throughout most of the 1990s. Whether these were in any way connected to the stroke, I know not. What I do know is that – touch timber products – I have suffered only one migraine headache since 2004. That occurred shortly before I was discharged from hospital and caused our ward cleaner to lie down beside me and stroke my fevered brow, much to the merriment of fellow inmates and my own good fortune….but enough of that particular breach of health and safety law and free addition to patient entitlements. I most certainly do not recommend stroke as a cure for migraine.
The second, less welcome, unexpected effect was something I only became aware of some months after I’d been discharged from hospital. This was a total aversion to malt whisky. Where previously I had enjoyed a relaxing malt or two at the end of a long working week, now I found merely the smell of the stuff – even the mention of names such as Highland Park, Glenlivet or Tallisker, was enough to induce nausea. Now, you may say, “No bad thing”. And to that I say, “Moderation in all things”. Sadly, however, even moderation was no longer a realistic option. The thought and smell of the stuff simply turned my stomach. Friends would wistfully produce their treasured bottle of malt and say, Edinburgh style, “You’ll not be wanting a dram, I suppose.” While I worked my way manfully through a glass or two of mineral water or fruit juice, I would watch them savouring their glass or two of the golden nectar. I suppose reformed alcoholics and ex-smokers must feel like this all the time. The difference is that I had no desire to touch the stuff. You could have left me overnight locked in a room with a carton of fine malts and you would have found the stock untouched next morning.
Just before Christmas we had a small party for friends, and one of them, who’d clearly forgotten, or perhaps never knew, of my aversion, offered as a gift a miniature of a malt whisky. At any rate, I suspected it was a miniature malt – it was wrapped in Christmas paper and was of the correct shape. “That’s destined for my son-in-law,” I thought glumly as I accepted the gift, all the while thinking enviously through metaphorically gritted teeth of my son-in-law’s joy.
Fast forward a few hours to that evening when we were all relaxing by the fire after the party. I had ritually humiliated my son-in-law by thrashing him at Scrabble and felt, therefore, unusually mellow towards him. “Fancy sharing that miniature, Alex?” I found myself saying. Alex, of course, winced at the inclusion of the word “sharing”, but half a miniature is better than none at all, and my generosity did not extend to donating him the whole thing, so a few minutes later the miniature was unwrapped to reveal a malt I had not sampled before – Edradour. I invited Alex to bring a couple of glasses and poured a small – very small – measure into each. Adding a little water to mine, I said “I’m going to hate this, Alex, but cheers anyway.” The tentative sip I took was not only palatable, it was distinctly, well, wonderful.
Edradour – whose advertising slogan includes the phrase “enjoy life’s small victories” had reversed the effect of a stroke.
I feel a research project coming on.