Locked-In Syndrome“I felt like an astronaut detached from their spaceship, drifting off into the solar system.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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“One blink for yes, two for no, three for ‘I love you’ and four for ‘You are a moron’.”

This was the  communication system Clodagh Dunlop developed with her partner when she lost the ability to move, speak or breathe independently when she was disgnosed with Locked-In Syndrome, after suffering a stroke. She told Ryan Tubridy today she recalls using number four quite a bit.

Rewind to 2015: Clodagh Dunlop is a 35 year old front-line police officer with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. A self-confessed ‘adrenaline junkie’, she loves her job, loves sky diving and runs 4.5 miles every day.

In early April, she suffered a number of minor strokes which were interpreted as fatigue. On 6 April 2015, a blood clot travelled to the base of her brain and she had a ‘brain stem stroke,’ giving rise to Locked-in Syndrome. Clodagh describes the moment she woke up in hospital:

“My body was gripped with pain, then I became terrified. I wanted to scream out for help but nothing would move. I couldn’t make a sound. Simply, it was harrowing. I was more helpless than a newborn baby.”

Clodagh realised that none of the hospital staff seemed aware that she was conscious at all. She could hear everything but she had no voice. Her partner Adrian came in to see her:

He looked directly at me and he asked me ‘Clodagh are you there? If you are, can you blink once for yes?’ That was terrifying because I knew that nothing in my body moved.”

Clodagh managed to make some minor eye movement and Adrian knew she could hear him. The long battle to recovery began.

There were no guarantees that Clodagh would ever speak or walk again. She had months of frustration over the lack of control of her body and her environment, right down to what she was wearing in her hospital bed. She says the inability to make herself heard was almost unbearable:

“I felt like an astronaut detached from their spaceship, drifting off into the solar system.  Screaming out for help and the world beneath me and no-one could hear me. I was alone.

Clodagh says frustration was a critical tool in her recovery. Her impatience at her best friend’s attempt to use a spell board had surprising consequences:

“I wanted to scream at her and suddenly from nowhere I made a sound somewhat like a dying pig, as she would say. For me that was the best sound ever.”

After this breakthrough, Clodagh practised relentlessly. Eventually she recovered most of her physical faculties and has now gone back to work as a detective in the PSNI. She even completed a sky dive on the one-year anniversary of her stroke.  Clodagh describes the feeling of falling from a Cesna airplane and hurlting  towards earth;

“It blew me away just how beautiful the green chequered fields were. I don’t think I fully appreciated how beautiful our country was until I had a stroke.”

You can hear more about how Clodagh’s sister looked after her beauty needs in hospital and her sometimes rocky path to recovery once she got home, in the full interview here.

Clodagh Dunlop’s book about her experiences with Locked-In Syndrome, A Return to Duty is out now and can be found at  beatinglockedin.com.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2019

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