"It's not an old person's thing necessarily."
Picton-based Heath Hutton was a fit, active man.
He worked a very physical job in the construction industry and enjoyed spending time out in nature with his partner, Olivia. He wasn't a smoker and didn't drink excessively. By all accounts, he was in perfect health.
Unfortunately for Heath, stroke doesn't discriminate. While strokes are often associated with older people, up to 30% of strokes are experiences by those under 65. Heath was only 54 when he experienced a stroke in December 2022.
On the day of his stroke, Heath was working hard building a marina in the summer heat.
"I went to get some parts, and all of a sudden I couldn't balance myself," Heath recalls. "I fell on the ground. I couldn't get up."
Heath then tried to talk and found his speech was slurred.
If someone shows signs of a stroke, it's critical that they receive medical attention as soon as possible. Luckily for Heath, the signs of stroke were recognised right away. An ambulance quickly arrived and took Heath to the airport where he was flown to Christchurch Hospital.
Due to the prompt response to his stroke symptoms, Heath was able to have clot retrieval surgery. This kind of surgery is most successful when performed within six hours of the onset of stroke symptoms and is only available at three hospitals in New Zealand.
Despite the success of his retrieval surgery, Heath still faced huge challenges. He was left with significant hemiplegia: paralysis that affects only one side of the body. After a lifetime of being active and working a physical job, he had to learn how to walk again.
But Heath was determined to get better, and once he was discharged from the hospital, he was heartened to find he had a group of people supporting him. "I call them my wolf pack," Heath says. "They're all trying to help me get better. It's great."
Heath's "wolf pack" includes Emily, the Stroke Foundation Community Stroke Advisor who has been supporting his recovery. As well as connecting him to vital rehabilitation services, Emily helped Heath to access special funding for private neurophysiotherapy sessions, which helped him regain strength and balance. Emily also applied to get an occupational therapist driving assessment funded so Heath could return to driving - and to independence.
“Through his recovery, he has had the most incredible attitude and determination," Emily says. "He and his partner Olivia have been so proactive towards his rehab, enabling him to make significant gains."
"I've got a great partner in Olivia," Heath agrees, adding that her support has been "instrumental" to his recovery. "There's a lot of administration that goes with it."
Olivia used her experience in event planning to support Heath's recovery. "I looked at it like an event," she explains. "I thought, right, I'm going to project manage this the absolute best I can."
This support from his "wolf pack" has certainly contributed to Heath's strong recovery and he has made enormous progress in the year since his stroke. "When you do something that you couldn't do previously, it's a good little buzz," he says. "Like being able to put your underpants on without falling over, that's a good one!"
As well as returning to work - remarkably, still doing physical work in the construction industry - Heath also keeps busy with weekly activities like swimming and horse-riding. And recently, Heath competed in the Marina-2-Marina running event in the Marlborough Sounds, completing 5 kilometres of the trail. "I was the last person," he says proudly. "I loved it! I could've done more."
Heath's advice for other stroke survivors is to learn to live with their new normal and to keep on moving. "I may not ever be 100%," he says.
"But I'm getting there, and I will keep on trying."
Can you help support other stroke survivors like Heath?