As our 20th anniversary approaches, we look back at how the charity started. Our Operations Manager Eileen, caught up with our founder, Donal OKelly, and put 20 questions to him...
1. Why did you start Different Strokes?
In the early 90s stroke services, especially in rehabilitation, were very limited. None of the professionals seemed to be striving for complete recovery for stroke survivors. Back then, we were known as stroke victims – I wanted to shake off the victim status and show we were capable of self-help. Demonstrating the members’ determination for a more rounded recovery was what made us different. There is life after stroke – bingo and basket-weaving is not the limit of our ambitions!
2. What was involved in the start up?
Lots of different things: getting support within the medical profession, certain legal formalities for the Charity Commissioners, fundraising, and lots and lots of enthusiasm and assistance from fellow stroke survivors. The energy from the members is what keeps Different Strokes going.
3. Did your stroke change your life?
It certainly did. Initially, I was completely paralyzed and unable to see or speak. Gradually I recovered most of my faculties but it took time and effort. I’m not the same person after the stroke. Not better or worse, just different, and maybe a little more relaxed.
4. What deficits did your stroke leave you with?
Emotional lability. I giggle uncontrollably at inappropriate moments and sometimes weep buckets for no apparent reason. I usually plead insanity, so people ignore me. My balance is also shot to pieces, and I can’t ride a bike for toffee.
5. How long did it take you to recover?
Up to a certain point of recovery, three years. Certain aspects of the recovery are still continuing, twenty years later. It helps being part of a group. Different strokes feels like a really supportive family, which is an incalculable benefit, and we’re all in it together.
6. When did you move the office out of London?
We started our exercise classes at the London YMCA, but the idea quickly spread throughout the UK. We wanted to be nationwide not just based in the capital. Initially, the HQ was my front room, but as we got bigger we needed office space – which is very expensive in London. About 1999 we decided to move out. Milton Keynes was central for the UK, near the motorway, with reasonable office prices.
7. Why did you leave Different Strokes?
One of the main reasons was that I’d been doing it for 10 years; it was very hard work and I wanted to spend more time doing other things.
8. Why did you not go back into practice as a barrister?
Initially, along with difficulties with my arms and legs, I’d lost my voice. By the time I got my voice back, I was busy getting Different Strokes off the ground and threw all my energy into the charity.
9. Do you miss being a barrister?
No, I certainly enjoyed it at the time, but I don’t miss it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Different Strokes, but was happy to move on. I love my current job, but still I’m looking forward to the next one, whatever that may be.
10. Did you ever write about your stroke?
I wrote articles for lots of magazines and some medical journals – and gave talks about Different Strokes where-ever and whenever I could. It was difficult to get me to shut up!
11. Did anyone ever suggest you write a book?
After a talk I gave in Dublin, I was approached by Penguin to write a Stroke book, but they didn’t much like the finished manuscript, so it never got published. Funnily enough, my wife’s first book features a barrister who suffers a head injury; I don’t know where she gets her ideas from! It’s an e-book available from Amazon by Linda O’Kelly – check it out, it’s a good read.
12. What have you been doing since you left Different Strokes?
I worked abroad for 2/3 years, teaching law, ethics and/or English, and building a house. Then I went to Dublin and got a job with the Bar Council there, administering their complaints system. If you want to complain about a barrister in Ireland, I’m your man.
13. Any plans to return to the UK?
Yes, at some point, though I’m not sure when that might be.
14. Any regrets about your time at Different strokes?
We achieved so much within the Stroke world, and are still doing so. There are lots of positives. But I do wish we had been able to do more for children with stroke. We had a couple of children’s conferences, and there was a definite need there, but we weren’t able to raise enough funds to initiate an effective service for children at that point. I am therefore delighted to hear that Different Strokes is now working with Irwin Mitchell Solicitors to send a children’s resource pack to each stroke unit and placing a greater focus on family support once more.
15. What positives?
The exercise classes, the information pack, the Helpline staffed by stroke survivors, the website interactive message board before most institutions even had websites, counselling for patients and families. The list goes on and on. All that we did was built on the experience of Stroke Survivors themselves. Stroke can happen to anyone at any age, so we had a huge pool of experience we could draw on.
16. Is Different Strokes still needed?
Of course it is. With the NHS under attack from all sides, and funding cut to the bone, we cannot wait for others to provide services. We have to get out there and create them for ourselves. Use what’s available and if it ain’t there, invent it! Anything that improves stroke recovery should be on the Different Stokes’ “to do” list. Innovate and keep rolling out new ideas.
17. Have you got any advice to those who have suffered a stroke recently?
Recovery takes a longer time than you think – don’t give up on it! A little conscious effort everyday will pay dividends eventually.
18. What’s your favourite movie?
19. Any suggestions for world peace?
Emancipation of women – worldwide.
20. Thanks Donal. One final question - another Guinness?