‘Stroking’ our Lives away by Dr Uche Anyanwagu

I turned and faced the elderly lady (let’s say she’s Mrs Wright) and asked about her past medical history. Just as most whites are wont, she was ready, loaded with an arsenal of all the sicknesses she had and still has. She was very quick to say the following words that left my mouth agape, no matter how hard I tried that Wednesday morning to act professionally and hide my surprise and shock-

“Yes!…” she said, with her voice dismissing it as a normal every day experience. “I’ve had two episodes of heart attack with a stent fitted. I also have hypertension and type 2 diabetes; and I’m currently on insulin. I had bowel cancer twelve years for which I had a section of my intestine removed and given chemotherapy…”

She gave out a rather mischievous smile as someone who is in the habit of cheating death. “Just two months ago…” she said dismissively, “I had the third episode of stroke, having had the first and second fifteen and seven years ago respectively…” 

I almost stood up from my seat to take a second look at this elderly lady that recently celebrated her 69th birthday. If I hadn’t seen her walk into the clinic with her two legs unsupported, I would have felt I’m being scammed. 

“Three episodes of stroke and two heart attacks…” I kept muttering to myself, murmuring like the Israelites in the wilderness. “And you are still alive?” Could the white man’s stroke and  heart attack be different from ours? How come we have different outcomes, I soliloquised…

A look at how a similar case in Africa typically ends… 

It’s Christmas time and many people are visiting their villages. In spite of all the blames we heap on the head of village people, one can’t just run away from home. It is therefore left for you to either fortify yourself in the LORD or have your Odeshi loaded before travelling to your village for the Christmas holidays. Interestingly though, things are bound to go wrong despite all the fortifications. 

It is no longer news that we Africans will always point to an evil uncle or an elderly woman in our compound as the reason behind any misfortune that befalls us. This is the story of one Magistrate who was driving to the City from his hometown on an Easter Monday afternoon having spent the Easter holidays with his kith and kins. As he drove along the highway, he suddenly skidded off the road and almost entered the lane of the oncoming vehicles. He kept swaying till he regained control and pulled over. 

The Magistrate was later brought to the hospital where I was on duty that public holiday. And he was able to describe what happened. He told me that he had a minor blackout and immediately felt weak in his arms and legs. 

He laid quietly on the couch as my colleagues and I kept examining him over and over, trying to predict if he had a stroke or an ongoing stroke, if it’s the bleeding type or the blockage type; if his symptoms were in keeping with what we thought could be wrong, etc. 

We knew somewhere in our textbooks that a CT of the head will help us answer some of the questions. But neither the hospital nor anyone within that zone of the country had any CT scanning machine. Even if we could find one, we had no neuro-surgeons to intervene; should it be the bleeding type. Even if we had neuro-surgeon, all interventions ought to happen on or before four hours of the Magistrate’s health scare on that highway.  

Double wahala for dead body! The sad thing is that before the Magistrate was brought to the hospital, he was first taken to a prophet who could only see the supposed cause of his ‘attack’ but had no solution or any recipe for cure! After exhausting all the four hours needed to save the Magistrate’s life, he let them bring him to the hospital that unfortunately had only theoretical but no single practical knowledge of what could save this young man. 

As a two-month old doctor at this point in my career, I felt it was my personal fault as I watched this young man’s consciousness level plummet till he was completely paralysed and later gave up. We encouraged the family to allow an autopsy and they reluctantly agreed. The damning verdict from the Pathologist was that he had a bleed in the brain. It so happened that while we ‘vibrated and pulled stuff’ and combed all the pages of neurology, our patient slowly bled in his brain until he died. The end of it is that ignorance and non-equipped health system were exonorated, while ‘village people’ were fingered (whatever that means) by the Magistrate’s family.

A typical Nigerian story of stroke (especially the blockage type) goes from…

– Waking up to pee early in the morning, 

– Then matching on or crossing over what an uncle put on the door post; 

– Followed by one part of the body paralysing; 

– And family prays and administers olive oil. 

– Pastor is called to begin marathon prayer sessions (some churches take him to stay over in church as it was a spiritual attack); 

– Then days later, he gets worse and some concerned neighbours suggest a great herbal medicine man who uses roots to thrash it; and off to his “hospital” till when all the limbs are flaccid. 

– Finally, they rush to the hospital and expect a miracle. 

Back to Mrs Wright’s Story… 

Mrs Wright, on the other, had the fortune of being told what signs that suggest stroke. She must ring the ambulance straight away. She may even take aspirin on her own before the crew arrives. The hospital is alerted and everyone set like primary school dancers na-echere egwu. 

CT scan is done immediately and she is either given a little injection to dissolve the clot causing the blockage or wheeled into theatre for a surgery to stop the bleeding in the brain. All in less than 4 hours. 

This is why Mrs Wright tells her story as a folktale but the Magistrate lies beyond 6 feet unable to tell his own story. The lucky ones become paralysed with their flapping flabby limbs. 

This is also why our President will choose Mrs Wright’s system to treat his ear infection and leave his “Mr Wrong” to the mess he made of our health system here. He isn’t even mindful of his massive deprived social media supporters whom he leaves to fight and kill themselves on Facebook, (in case stroke fails to help him wipe them out). 

It turned out that Mr Magistrate was hypertensive, started medication but was told to stop by his prophet. The uncontrolled blood pressure caused a blood vessel to burst in his brain. 

Before you take it out on that elderly lady who has suffered hardship, living in penury and abject poverty, pause, ponder, ask yourself when last you checked your BP.

That old woman only has dementia and may say anything. Don’t take her words as a confession. 

Is it not a shame that an old frail demented man or woman can kill or maim the future of a vibrant young person as you? If we understand the essence of Christmas, then, even if anyone is evil, s/he can’t even hurt us- be it physical or spiritual.  

Pause! When last did you check your health status?

Before you add to the suffering of an already bleeding lady, remember, like that Magistrate, you could be ‘stroking’ your precious life away. 

Merry Christmas! I am Uche Anyanwagu, I won’t blame my village people while I ‘stroke’ my life away. 

This is the fourth in a series of essays on “Medical Myths – Tales by Doctors ” written by Dr Uche Anyanwagu (PhD). Dr Uche is a medical doctor by profession, and a writer of poems and essays during his spare time. You can follow him on Twitter: @ucheanyanwagu.

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