Regaining as much as possible of how you were before is the goal of every stroke survivor. But what if you were a painter and the stroke took away the power in your brush hand? That’s the challenge that faced artist Judith Dixon when she had a series of strokes aged 69 in 2010.
Judith spent 12 weeks in Waikato Hospital where, as she puts it, “I learnt to survive”, and began the long process of recovery. By a curious coincidence both Judith’s own mother and grandmother had strokes, both also at the age of 69.
It was in hospital that specialist Robyn Sekerak encouraged Judith to start painting again, even though her second stroke had paralysed her right hand. Weeks of mirror therapy eventually unlocked the paralysis but the hand is still weak.
“I believe the secret to the success of my recovery was my return to painting,” says Judith. “Trying to paint with my right hand was a real challenge, so I decided to try with my left. This was to prove remarkably successful after a few hilarious attempts – as you can imagine my initial paintings were somewhat weird!”
Trial and error was the rule, as with every other aspect of normal daily living. Some four months after her stroke Judith was taken by a friend to a local cafe and managed to walk up the steps with the aid of a walking stick and the rail. “A real achievement! My recovery was marked by many such celebratory moments, each one a milestone in overcoming the obstacles caused by my stroke. Each one born out of my sheer determination to survive and recover together with the wonderful encouragement and motivation by friends and family.”
She started to cook, drove her car, and did her own shopping again. Bit by bit she progressed, fighting occasional waves of depression. Two years after her stroke Judith entered some paintings in the Morrinsville Wallace Art Gallery Annual Exhibition. The positive response boosted her confidence and commitment to recovery. In January 2013 she finally completed a painting with her right hand.
Right-handed painting is still exhausting however. “I have had to come to terms with the fact that returning to life before the stroke is not totally possible. My right arm will never have quite the same strength as before and these are the facts of recovering from a stroke. But as the Monty Python song goes – always look on the bright side of life!”
“Over the years I have been asked by stroke victims or their families for advice or to share my experiences and I am always happy to do this. Sharing our stories and experiences makes us realise that we are not alone, that others too have walked this way and their stories can help us in our individual journey.”